Friday, April 29, 2011

Why Brash took over ACT

Why did Don Brash mount a corporate-raider style hostile takeover of ACT rather than found his own party and compete for votes in free-market style? Over on Public Address, Graeme Edgeler has an interesting theory: he did it for the broadcasting funding:

Each election year, the Electoral Commission starts a process by which it divides up a pot of public time (on TVNZ and National Radio) and money ($2.855m ex. GST) that registered political parties contesting the party vote get to spend on TV an radio advertising. It is the only money parties can spend on TV and radio advertising.


This provides a pretty big incentive for Brash to want to lead ACT rather than to have gone it alone in a new vehicle. Even if he brings in lots of money in donations, unless he's behind the Coalition of New Zealanders, the New Zealand Sovereignty Party, the Pirate Party of New Zealand, or the World Peace Party (the four unregistered parties which did apply), that new party couldn't have advertised on TV or radio. Another bonus, of course, be the level of funding. The Electoral Commission is hearing submissions from the parties today and tomorrow on the proper [sic. Allocation? - I/S] Based on past numbers, I estimate a new party will get $10k, and ACT will be up for $200k-$250k of public money to spend on broadcast advertising.

The irony here ought to be obvious: a paragon of the free market taking over a political party in order to receive a higher state subsidy. But I guess he'd just blame the perverse incentives created by the unfair allocation regime, which seems aimed at protecting and reinforcing the status quo. And he'd be right.

New Fisk

Out of Syria's darkness come tales of terror

No freedom of speech in the UK

Don't care about the UK's royal wedding? Don't like the UK's absurd inbred monarchy? Don't say so today in the UK, or you'll get arrested:

Three anti-capitalist activists who were planning a mock execution of Prince Andrew with a guillotine to mark the royal wedding have been arrested and detained at Lewisham police station.


A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said: "This evening, 28 April, officers arrested three people – two males aged 68 and 45, and a 60-year-old woman – in Wickham Road, SE4 on suspicion of conspiracy to cause public nuisance and breach of the peace.

Rude? Yes. Tasteless? Yes. Caring too much? Absolutely. And yet they should have been allowed to mark the event in the manner of their choosing. Their display posed no danger to anyone, and no threat to "security". The only damage it would inflict was on the sensibilities of monarchists.

Meanwhile, thousands of street parties to celebrate the event get to go ahead without police intervention. The double-standard is evident. If you're a good little peasant, you can say so. If you're not, you don't. It is a clear content-based restriction on freedom of expression, and absolutely incompatible with the UK's status as a modern, liberal democracy. But then, so is the monarchy itself...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Paying for McCully's drinking

The government dumped its Ministerial expenses today, clearly hoping that they'd be lost in the media noise from the inbred wedding. I've spent the afternoon going through the credit card receipts. The good news is that most of our Ministers are careful with public money; I'm not seeing the enormous booze bills we saw in early releases, and they tend to avoid their hotel minibars. Judith Collins spends a lot on flowers for injured police staff, but that seems entirely justified. Note that I say "most". The big exception is Murray McCully, our Minister of Foreign Affairs, whose credit card statements [PDF] are a litany of eating and boozing around the world. Here's just a few examples:

  • An AU$233 dinner for the Minister and his private secretary at the Waterfront in Sydney. 3 glasses of wine each, plus a top-range seafood platter. This is followed by an AU$ 166 repeat performance the next night.
  • An AU$238 breakfast for the Minister and two IRB bigwigs. No detailed receipt is available.
  • An ~NZ$900 dinner for the Minister and 8 local diplomatic staff in Jakarta. They had a private room and blew $150 on corkage alone (at least they were BYO). These aren't foreign dignitaries the Minister is trying to impress, but NZ public servants.
  • An NZ$355 lunch for 3 at the Intercontinental in Yokohama. Again, no detailed receipt is available.
  • NZ$45 on dinner at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (which isn't a problem) - then twice that in the bar (which is). The detailed receipts from that trip show that he and his staffer were rounding out every evening with a taxpayer-funded drinking session.
  • A $620 lunch for 6 at Soul in Auckland for the Aid Advisory Board, including $250 on alcohol.
And while we're paying for all this, the government is cutting funding to women's refuges. National's priorities in action.

PPPs are not value for money

Earlier in the month, the government announced that two new schools in John Key's electorate would be built under a public-private-partnership (PPP) scheme. This is part of a wider trend to foist PPPs on New Zealand, particularly for schools, hospitals, prisons and roads. Meanwhile, over in the UK, the National Audit Office - their equivalent of the auditor-general - has warned that PPPs do not offer value for money, and recommended that the UK government find other ways of financing new infrastructure:

The government's spending watchdog has issued its strongest health warning to date over the use of PFI deals to build new schools and hospitals, saying the government should urgently find alternative ways to invest in major infrastructure projects after some costs spiralled out of control.

Private finance initiatives (PFI), whereby banks and construction companies pay for public sector capital projects then lease them back for a period of up to 30 years, have become increasingly expensive since the credit crisis and the government should consider slowing down the number of new deals it enters into, the National Audit Office says.

The Treasury may be tempted to continue new projects, which allow big capital builds without an initial outlay from the public purse, because it keeps spending off the balance-sheet, the report says. But the ongoing costs have not always provided best value for money, instead locking the government into hugely expensive deals for decades.

How expensive? An earlier report found that under the Private Finance Initiative (their name for PPPs), the UK government had paid £262bn so far for assets worth only £55bn. And there are still 37 years to go on the contracts...

PPPs are simply a scam. The government gets to pretend its not spending money, while in fact massively overpaying for the privilege. They are simply a way of looting the state and providing guaranteed, risk-free profits to the government's rich mates.

National cuts women's refuges

Last week, National announced it was blowing $36 million on a foreign yacht race for rich people. Meanwhile, its cutting funding to women's refuges by as much as 50%:

Women's refuges say some women fleeing from violence may no longer be able to get a safe bed after a surprise Government policy change chopped $700,000 off their funding.

The 45 refuges have lost $382,200 from their national contract and just over $300,000 in contracts held by some refuges for family violence co-ordinator and child advocate jobs, which have been scrapped.


"We currently get paid $520 per client for just over 3000 [short-stay] clients, spread amongst the 45 refuges. Take $382,200 out and that reduces to $251," she said.

"We have to make a decision as to whether we can actually provide that service any more."

Women's refuges do a vital job. They may no longer be able to do that job thanks to these cuts. And when they're facing increased demand due to National's recession, that looks more than merely short-sighted - it looks actively evil.

Meanwhile, the government seems to be actively lying about the cuts, saying that the organisation can apply to another fund. In fact, there is less money available, applications have to be lodged by tomorrow (very short notice when we're talking about paperwork for hundreds of thousands of dollars), and they're ineligible in any case. But if the government admitted that, they'd have to carry the can for their decision. By pretending that money is available, they can them blame organisations for failing to apply for it - a conscious strategy of blaming the victim.

This is what National does: cut vital social services while funnelling money to the rich. If you want to end it, then you know what to do in November.

Gone by lunchtime

So, its done - Don Brash has rolled Rodney Hide as ACT leader. The good news is that we'll be rid of Rodney; he'll be gone at the election. The bad news is that we may have to put up with Don Brash instead if he manages to revive ACT's fortunes. The silver lining in that bad news is that the prospect is as discomforting to National as it is to us, not just because he's a toxic threat to their attempts to moderate their brand, but also because his coalition management is likely to be as publicly hamfisted as his two messy coup attempts, with public threats of toy-throwing if he doesn't get his own way, now, on everything. At the least, we can take some pleasure in the discomfort that will cause John Key.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Not so harmless after all

I haven't commented on the British royal wedding, because I do not give a shit about a pack of foreign inbreds, and even going to the effort of saying so is paying them more attention than they deserve. But I do have to comment on this: the British royal family have banned satirical coverage by Australian comedy team The Chaser:

Just two days before Prince William and Kate Middleton are due to tie the knot, ABC TV has been forced to cancel The Chaser's one-off live coverage of the event due to what it says are restrictions imposed by the royal family.

The Chaser's Royal Wedding Commentary was due to air on ABC2 from 7:00pm AEST on Friday, offering viewers a satirical take on the royal wedding.

But now the live special - promised to be "uninformed and unconstitutional" - has been reluctantly pulled due to restrictions imposed over the Easter break.

Firstly, there's the obvious point: if you don't want your wedding laughed at, hold it in fucking private. If you make a big public spectacle of it, then you have only yourself to blame when people point out the inherent absurdity of the whole exercise. Secondly, the Chaser's Julian Morrow puts it well when they say
"For a monarchy to be issuing decrees about how the media should cover them seems quite out of keeping with modern democratic times... but I suppose that's exactly what the monarchy is," he said.
About the only virtue the British royals can claim is that they're harmless - they don't actually do anything. They've just blown that out of the water, and revealed that under the skin, they're just a censoring hereditary dictatorship with no sense of humour, just like they were in the C18th. And if that's the case, if they're actually going to behave like monarchs, then its high time we freed ourselves from them and declared a republic.

Palmerston North is not Whanganui

A couple of years ago when local iwi suggested that "Whanganui" be spelled correctly, with an "h", there was an enormous racist outburst, with Whanganui mayor Michael Laws whipping up a horde of rednecks to complain about how they were being oppressed by having to spell things correctly. Fast forward a couple of years, and my local region is debating whether to start using a macron in Manawatū. The immediate public reaction (offline, but in yesterday's SubStandard)? "Writing Maori is just as important as pronouncing it".

It seems that Palmerston North isn't Whanganui after all...

More "terror" raids in the pipeline?

For the past few weeks, Te Whanau a Apanui have been protesting alongside Greenpeace to oppose offshore oil exploration by PetroBras. They don't want a dirty offshore oil industry polluting their traditional fishing grounds. Now, according to Maui Street, the iwi have been informed that the police are planning Tuhoe-style raids to suppress the protests:

Our team have been given a heads up from an inside source that the Police are mobilising to hit Apanui with raids, like the Tuhoe ones. Maori cops have been asked to take part in an Armed Offenders operation.
Maui Street rates this as "more than just speculation":
In my opinion it is plausible, if not probable, that the Police are keeping a close tab on the tribe with a view to suppressing continued protest action. The Police will undoubtedly construe some warped narrative and, like last time, arrest a bunch of naïve Maori activists, skinny environmentalists, pacifists and small time riff raff. Another kick in the guts for Maori and another embarrassment for the police.
I really hope they're wrong. The police have no business suppressing protest, and if they do, they will bring themselves even further into disrepute. Though given their persecution of Tiki Taane, that might be a bit difficult...

New Fisk

If the rumours and conspiracies are true, then President Assad's regime is on the road to civil war

Kaye and Ardern on the republic

For the past few weeks, the Herald has been running "Broadsides", paired columns on a common topic by Jacinda Ardern and Nikki Kaye (both young MPs and the Labour and National candidates for Auckland Central). This week, they asked them whether it is time to ditch the monarchy. The answer? A resounding yes. Here's Ardern:

If we were to start from scratch and redesign the way New Zealand was governed, I doubt we would start with the model that said our head of state should be based on nothing more than birth right. It's just not very Kiwi, and more than that, it's not our own.

There are hurdles between us building the independent governance that comes via a republic, but none are insurmountable. The Treaty of Waitangi was a partnership between the Crown and Maori and these relationships would need new constitutional footing if we were to remove the monarchy from the picture. And, of course, we would need a replacement head of state. Michael Cullen recently spoke on this subject and I think set out a plausible path, that a new head of state be elected by a super majority of parliament upon the death or incapacity of our current monarch, and that the Governor General play a transition role. Whatever the next steps look like, they're steps I believe we need to take.

And Kaye:
I'm one of those who believe the constitutional arrangements of our country should be modernised to reflect our changing culture, while recognising that the monarchy reflects an important part of a shared heritage.

I personally believe that hereditary privilege should not determine our Head of State and that person should be a New Zealander. One of the things I love about New Zealand is that we are a very egalitarian society and we don't tolerate class structures.

This is why a republic is inevitable: because regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, younger New Zealanders - and their MPs - see the current arrangements as outdated, inegalitarian, foreign, and absurd. The only question is when we start to change those arrangements to reflect modern society, rather than that of our grandparents.

At the same time, Kaye is a bit disingenuous, saying she opposed Keith Locke's Head of State Referendum Bill because "any changes should be made by public referendum" (which the bill would have done; its right there in the title), and directing people at the government's constitutional review which specifically will not discuss republicanism. She's right to say that we need to have a conversation on the issue; the problem is that the current government (led by a royalist toady and which has reintroduced feudalism rather than eliminated it) is steadfastly refusing to have that conversation. She should be honest enough to admit that, rather than trying to hide it, and look at other ways of advancing the issue.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Key covers up torture

Over the weekend, we learned that the SAS had been complicit in torture in Afghanistan, turning over captives to US and Afghan forces who later tortured them. This challenged the comfortable narrative fed to us by our political leaders and the military - that the SAS don't take prisoners, so turning them over to torturers just isn't an issue - and raised the prospect that NZDF personnel could be prosecuted for war crimes. The Greens have called for an independent inquiry into the issue, and it seems to be well-justified. We need to know who has been lying to whom. We need to know the truth, so that it doesn't happen again and so the people responsible can be held to account.

Now Prime Minister John Key - who has publicly led that campaign of comfortable lies - has ruled out any inquiry. Despite the evidence presented of both torture and lies about torture, he sees nothing of concern. We don't need to know what our army is doing in our name in Afghanistan, and we certainly don't need to know whether our politicians have been systematically lying to us about it. We should all just trust him.

Sorry, but I don't. We've been presented with strong evidence that our politicians have been lying to us. John Key is one of the politicians who has done so. We can not simply accept his word that everything is OK. Particularly on something as serious as this.

In criminal cases, we use an independent body - a judge or a jury - to weigh the evidence. That is what we should be doing here. By refusing to allow such an investigation, Key has moved from potentially being the victim of the army's lies, to actively covering up collusion in torture. And that makes him a co-conspirator. He should be judged accordingly.

National logic

The government is short of money. It has big spending commitments (a recession, an earthquake, the SCF bailout, on top of all the usual health and education and social spending stuff we expect it to do), but has slashed its own revenue base with tax cuts for the rich. It needs to raise more money to pay for its "roads of National significance" (which all oddly go to places Steven Joyce wants to go on holiday). So what does it do? Cancel the scheduled annual increase in fuel taxes. Instead, they'll make it up next year and in 2013 - when they're not facing an election.

Its a nakedly political move, which pretty obviously wouldn't be happening if there wasn't an election this year. But I guess it shows that Labour's narrative on the cost of living is getting to them. Still, I hope they'll enjoy eating it next time they plead poverty...

The absurdity of Easter liquor laws

Every Easter, we have the usual argument about Easter trading. The current law is an absurd relic of Christian oppression, aimed at forcing people to celebrate a particular religion by the simple expedient of giving them nothing else to do, and it has no place in a modern, secular society. But every attempt at changing it - and there have been eight in the last 15 years - has failed, largely because the MPs pushing them are too stupid to include the obvious and popular compromise measure of making Easter Sunday a public holiday. Sadly, this year's example, promoted by Tau Henare, seems to be no different.

Meanwhile, while attention is focused on shop trading hours, equally absurd Easter laws get ignored. Broadcasters can't show ads over Easter, presumably because it might offend the Easter Bunny or something. I virulently hate TV advertising, to the extent that I now download all my TV simply to avoid it, but the idea of banning it out of "respect" for someone's imaginary friend is absolutely ludicrous, and I can't imagine it passing a BORA analysis (promoting a particular faith isn't even a legitimate public purpose, let alone an important one). And then there's the liquor laws... liquor stores can't trade over Easter, and you can't buy a drink in a hotel or tavern unless you're there for the purposes of a meal (which on Sunday meant that I couldn't even buy a coffee at a particular establishment in Wellington, unless I wanted to sit down for a meal I didn't want. No, a bowl of chips wouldn't be enough to satisfy their liquor licence. Fortunately, there were other establishments not so constrained...) Again, its the Christians being the fun police: the weekend is important to them, so we all have to suffer. And again, it has no place in a modern, secular, liberal society. If Christians want to not drink over Easter, that's fine. But the idea that the rest of us should be forced not to drink (or in my case, buy coffee) fails Mill's Law. It is simply the tyranny of the majority - or the tyranny of a past majority - in action.

You'd think that with the changes in our society, these laws would gradually be working their way off the statute book as the law was updated. You'd be wrong. The government's new Alcohol Reform Bill reiterates the ban on Easter liquor sales. Despite the fact that we now live in a secular country, we're still forced to suffer under religious laws.

New Fisk

Shifting blame to Lebanon may be the method in Assad's madness

Another decaying corpse

What is it with ACT and the political undead? Last election, they pulled the stake out of Roger Douglas, allowing a whole new generation of New Zealanders to learn what a demented old fool he is. And now, they've attracted the unwelcome attention of former National Party leader (and Hollow Man) Don Brash, who is demanding to be made leader even though he is not even a member of the party. And in typical Brash style, his campaign is based on threats: threats to funding (echoing his 2002 "no Brash, no cash" campaign), and to start a new ultra-right vehicle to contest ACT's tiny share of the vote. To an outsider, it doesn't exactly seem like a way to win friends and influence people. But maybe ACT people like being threatened and parasitized in this manner.

Its also a potential discomfort for National. The prospect of coalition with an even more radical racist Brash-led ACT is unlikely to appeal to the moderate voters National is relying upon for support. And Brash's platform of pushing harder for those policies means (in practice) instability and regular coalition tantrums. While John Key says he is relaxed about working with Brash, I doubt he'll be so relaxed when Brash is threatening to withdraw confidence and supply to extort unpopular policy concessions.

But its not just a short-term problem. ACT is now looking like a party in its death throes, with various loonies fighting over the corpse. The Maori Party is being seriously threatened by Hone Harawira. They've ruled out working with Winston. Which means their list of potential post-election coalition partners is looking very thin indeed. They're betting on majority government, which means not having to worry about any of that, but even on current polling, that's a big gamble. Voters balked at the idea of an unconstrained government in 2002, and I expect a similar reaction this time round. And even if their gamble is successful this time, they'll still be facing that problem in the long term. If ACT goes under, who will National work with in 2014? 2017? The future? Peter Dunne isn't going to be around forever...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

New Fisk

Every concession makes the President more vulnerable
But what if the spirit of rebellion spread to Iran?

Friday, April 22, 2011

SAS complicit in torture

According to the Herald and 3 News tonight, Metro magazine has a major story out tomorrow exposing the New Zealand SAS's complicity in torture in Afghanistan. In at least one of the cases, the SAS are the good guys - back in 2002, they objected when prisoners they had captured and transferred to the US were mistreated. But in at least two cases in 2010, they transferred prisoners to the Afghan National Directorate of Security - an organisation so well-known to engage in torture that British troops have been prohibited from transferring prisoners to them by UK courts. Those transfers violated both the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions. And by transferring those prisoners, the individual soldiers responsible have exposed themselves to prosecution under New Zealand and international law.

Obviously, there must be a full investigation of these events, with an eye to pressing charges where they are necessary. No New Zealand soldier can be allowed to be complicit in torture, and any soldier who is needs to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

But beyond that, we also need to look at political accountability. Both John Key and Wayne Mapp have stated repeatedly in public that the SAS does not take prisoners. We now know that they were lying. The Minister of Foreign Affairs stood up in Parliament and claimed that we had an agreement with the Red Cross to monitor transfers to Afghan forces. We now know that that is a lie. McCully also claimed that "to date, no detainees have been transferred by the SAS to Afghan authorities". That may or may not have been true (it will depend on the dates published in Metro tomorrow).

But its not just the politicians who we need to look into. At the time, the Chief of Defence Force was Jerry Mateparae - who is about to become our next Governor-General. The 3 News story cites Key as explicitly relying on his advice that the SAS were not taking or transferring prisoners. And in late 2010, Mataparae stood up before the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade select committee during its annual financial review of the NZDF and told them the same thing [PDF, p. 3]. We now know that that is not true, and that he lied to Parliament. The question, then, is whether someone tainted by lies about torture is fit to be our head of state.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

If you can't plug it, don't drill it

Brazilian oil company Petrobras is currently exploring for oil off East Cape. At the moment they are just conducting a seismic survey, but they have permission to drill an exploratory well if the survey is successful. The government says they wil comply with "international best practice", but on Morning Report yesterday morning [audio], they admitted that they had no way of capping the well if there was an accident, and no plans to bring the latest technology to do so to New Zealand. Their assessment:

"if you had a major catastrophe, it'd be just as bad as you had in North America".

This is unacceptable. These people are exposing us to serious environmental risks, potentially costing us hundreds of millions of dollars. They should mitigate those risks using the best available technology. If they refuse to, they should not be allowed to drill. It is that simple.

As for the government, they are gambling with our environment. Our oil-spill response capability consists of three tiny vessels barely capable of dealing with a leaky fuel tank on a container ship, let alone a major undersea oil leak. But their economic plan rests on discovering oil (yes, seriously, that's their plan to catch Australia: discover oil. They might as well "plan" on winning Lotto), and so they are happy to let it go ahead, regardless of the risks, and regardless of the costs it imposes on the rest of us.

More tyranny in Bahrain

Last month, Bahrain's monarch invited a foreign army into his country and used them to violently suppress his country's pro-democracy movement. Since then, the Bahraini regime has embarked on a reign of terror, raiding Shi'ite homes in the night, disappearing democracy and human rights activists, and apparently murdering them in prison. Now they've taken things a step further, targeting doctors whose sole "crime" is to treat the wounded:

At least 32 doctors, including surgeons, physicians, paediatricians and obstetricians, have been arrested and detained by Bahrain's police in the last month in a campaign of intimidation that runs directly counter to the Geneva Convention guaranteeing medical care to people wounded in conflict. Doctors around the world have expressed their shock and outrage.

One doctor, an intensive care specialist, was held after she was photographed weeping over a dead protester. Another was arrested in the theatre room while operating on a patient.

Many of the doctors, aged from 33 to 65, have been "disappeared" – held incommunicado or at undisclosed locations. Their families do not know where they are. Nurses, paramedics and ambulance staff have also been detained.

Doctors have a professional duty to treat anyone in need, regardless of their political or religious views. These people are being persecuted for doing their jobs and acting in a humane and decent fashion. But in Bahrain, that apparently is now a crime.

Meanwhile, the US government still supports the Bahraini regime. By doing so, they are supporting torture, murder, and widespread human rights abuses. Its time that support ended for good.


That's the only way to describe Labour's Stop Asset Sales campaign. Oh, the ads are eyecatching, the subject is well chosen - but the placards violate land transport rules. Unnoticed by DPF and the Herald, they also violate electoral advertising regulations - regulations that were passed by Labour when they were in government, and almost certainly signed off by Phil Goff when he was Minister of Justice. And so Labour manages to turn another good idea into an own goal.

Also emabrasing is Goff's response:

While the signs were modelled on stop signs "nobody's going to mistake it as a stop sign, that's just silly".
If Goff really thinks that, he should stick one by a road, invite prosecution, and defend it in court. Instead, he'll let other people carry the legal can for his mistakes.

National's priorities

"Necessities""Nice to haves"
  • Tax cuts for the rich
  • Mediaworks bailout
  • New BMWs
  • Ministerial helicopter rides
  • Foreign yacht races
  • Qualified ECE staff
  • Legal aid
  • Hospitals
  • Democracy

Nice to know where they stand, isn't it?

Escalation in Libya II

First we had the "military advisors" - foreign mercenaries - to help the Libyan rebels. Now we have the arms shipments:

The US plans to send $25m worth of non-lethal equipment to the rebel opposition in eastern Libya, in a move likely to further entangle the west in the two-month-old civil war.

The proposal to send surplus Pentagon equipment, including vehicles, medical supplies, protective vests, binoculars and radios, follows Italy's decision to join Britain and France in sending military advisers to the Libyan opposition and a French pledge to intensify air strikes.

This is of course illegal. The UN imposed an arms embargo on Libya through UN Security Council Resolution 1970 [PDF]. It forbids
the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya... of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts for the aforementioned, and technical assistance, training, financial or other assistance, related to military activities or the provision, maintenance or use of any arms and related materiel
There are limited exceptions for flak jackets and vehicles for use by aid agencies and media, but they certainly don't cover arming and equipping a rebel army.

The US voted for this resolution. Now, a little over a month later, they want to piss all over it. So much for international law.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Secrecy invites suspicion

John Barrow is a dairy farmer, currently accused of violating his resource consents by taking more water than he is entitled to. John Barrow is also a Horizons Regional Councillor. Horizons are the body prosecuting him for the resource consent violation, so you'd expect them to take every step to ensure a transparent investigation that public can have confidence in, right?

Wrong. They're dealing with the whole thing in secret, behind closed doors.

Regardless of the outcome, this invites suspicion. If Horizons' decision is upheld, farmers will be able to believe it was a stitch-up. If it is not, then the rest of us will see the council corruptly protecting one of its own. Neither is a good outcome. In the justice system, we use open courts precisely to ensure that the public can have confidence in the outcome. Local government owes us the same level of transparency.

It was all about the oil II

Another day, another revelation about the Blair government's dishonesty over oil and Iraq:

The British Government saw Iraqi oil as "vital" to the UK's long-term energy security, and the effective privatisation of its oil industry was central to the post-invasion plan for the country, according to previously unseen Whitehall documents.

The UK was already working behind the scenes to ensure British companies did not lose out to competitors in the region, reveal strategy papers that were discussed at the highest level across Whitehall just days after President George W Bush declared "mission accomplished" in May 2003.

Despite Tony Blair and his ministers' public insistence that Iraq's vast oil reserves – then estimated at 112 billion barrels – were a matter for the Iraqis alone, officials warned a meeting of the "inter-departmental Oil Sector Liaison Group (OSLG)" that appearing "gratuitously exploitative" in its policy goals – which included the aim to "maximise benefit to British industry and thus British employment/economy" – could "backfire politically".

Again, this is telling us what we already knew: the Blair government were a lying pack of shits, film at eleven. But then, it also makes you wonder whether there aren't identical discussions happening in Whitehall over Libya right this minute.

Escalation in Libya

When the UK started bombing Libya, it assured its people that that was all they would do, and that there was no possibility that British troops would end up being deployed. As usual, they lied. They're now sending a team of "military advisors" to help the rebels on the ground. Which is of course how Vietnam began.

But apart from fears of escalation, the deployment violates Parliament's authorisation for military action, which was specifically to "protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack in Libya and to enforce the No Fly Zone". While that has no legal weight, it carries a lot of political weight. Worse, it also violates United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 [PDF], which authorised military force for the same purpose. But this isn't even arguably about protecting civilians, its nakedly intervening on one side in a civil war - something the UN very specifically did not authorise.

There are two problems here. The first is about the perversion of UN resolutions to serve the west's geopolitical aims - something which will result in a further weakening of the UN and erosion of its power to do good. The second, specific to the UK, is about lies. The Cameron government is continuing Blair's habit of going to war on false pretences, using lies to obtain Parliamentary (and therefore, they hope, public) approval. The UK public is already highly suspicious of this war, even given a fairly decent moral case. Lies will simply cement that suspicion.

New Fisk

Can President Assad do what it takes to cleanse his corrupt regime?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hungary considering Demeny voting

The Guardian has an interesting piece today about the Hungarian government's plans to introduce Demeny voting and give mothers extra votes for their children. This is being pitched as a democratic move, but its not; instead, the ruling Fidesz party - basically Catholic racists - is simply trying to strap the electoral chicken by giving extra votes to its core supporters, while explicitly denying those votes to groups who do not support them:

However, to counter concerns about the Roma winning more votes, Szájer said in the Hungarian case, the move would have "permitted the passage of a law giving mothers the vote on behalf of a maximum of one child".
(The Roma are a persecuted minority in Hungary, with a notably larger families than the rest of the population. Extra votes for children would boost their voting power significantly).

As I've said before, the key problem with Demeny voting is that it encourages the conflation of parents interests with those of their children (when, as we're seeing on climate change, on IP law, and all sorts of other issues, they are pretty much diametrically opposed). The Hungarian government's plan explicitly relies on this. But its not a democratic move; instead its just an undemocratic weighting exercise, every bit as objectionable as weighting by wealth or race. If the Hungarian government really cared about giving young people a voice, it would lower the voting age instead.

It was all about the oil

When the US and UK invaded Iraq back in 2003, they claimed that it was about human rights and stopping the spread of WMDs, rather than about oil. Since then, torture has continued unabated, aided and abetted (and sometimes carried out) by US and UK forces, while no WMDs have been found (no doubt they're hiding with Elvis and Jimmy Hoffa somewhere). As for the oil, it turns out that the UK government was conspiring with British oil companies on how to divide the spoils of war in the leadup to the invasion:

Plans to exploit Iraq's oil reserves were discussed by government ministers and the world's largest oil companies the year before Britain took a leading role in invading Iraq, government documents show.


The documents were not offered as evidence in the ongoing Chilcot Inquiry into the UK's involvement in the Iraq war. In March 2003, just before Britain went to war, Shell denounced reports that it had held talks with Downing Street about Iraqi oil as "highly inaccurate". BP denied that it had any "strategic interest" in Iraq, while Tony Blair described "the oil conspiracy theory" as "the most absurd".

But documents from October and November the previous year paint a very different picture.

Five months before the March 2003 invasion, Baroness Symons, then the Trade Minister, told BP that the Government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq's enormous oil and gas reserves as a reward for Tony Blair's military commitment to US plans for regime change.

The papers show that Lady Symons agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP's behalf because the oil giant feared it was being "locked out" of deals that Washington was quietly striking with US, French and Russian governments and their energy firms.

There's more, and it shows the British government working hand in glove with the oil industry to steal and divide up Iraq's resources. When compared with their pious public denials, it shows that the Blair government were simply a lying pack of shits. But then, we knew that already.

Key washes his hands

Inflation is now at 4.5%, and many families are struggling. John Key's response? Wash his hands of the problem:

Prime Minister John Key yesterday acknowledged New Zealanders were "feeling the pinch" as prices rose at their fastest rate in two years led by fuel costs, something he said the Government could do little about.
Bullshit. The bulk of this problem can be sheeted home to government policy. The GST rise, which despite National propaganda, was not "fully compensated". The cuts to ECE funding, meaning massive hikes in childcare costs. The labour market policies designed to prevent wage growth. The economic policies which are strangling growth and prolonging the recession. This is the government's fault. And it is something we expect them to fix. Government is there to protect people from things like this. Sadly, the only people this government is interested in protecting are its rich mates.


According to Stuff, the Urewera 18 are seeking leave to appeal the decision to deny them a jury trial to the Supreme Court. Good. Trial by jury is a fundamental right, and a vital check on the justice system. The decision to deny a jury in such a controversial and politically charged case is a travesty of justice which will fatally undermine the credibility of the trial in the public eye. And regardless of what you think about the case, that is not a Good Thing.

This is an important case, and it needs to be heard. We all need to know whether the government is allowed to structure a trial to be long and complex, then use those decisions to deny a jury. And if it can, then we need to look seriously and urgently at the law which allows it to do so.

Climate change: Our $1.2 billion a year credibility gap

Earlier in the month, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment called bullshit on the government's "20% by 2020" target, pointing out that under current policy settings, we had no hope of meeting it. She's not alone - the criticism has been echoed by the International Energy Agency. And now the UN has weighed in, pointing out the credibility gap in its latest review of our climate change policies:

A United Nations review has found a large credibility gap between New Zealand's target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and the measures in place to achieve it.

"It could find no plan for two-thirds or more of what is required to meet the target," said the Sustainability Council's executive director, Simon Terry.

The actual review is here [PDF]. Its a fairly technical document, largely concerned with whether our most recent national communication under the UNFCCC includes all the information it is required to. It is, for the UN, highly critical of our policies:
In 2009 New Zealand announced a conditional national GHG emission reduction target for 2020 (a 10–20 per cent reduction of total GHG emissions compared to the 1990 level), and a long-term aspirational target for 2050 (a 50 per cent reduction of total GHG emissions compared to the 1990 level. The national 2020 target is conditional on the extent of future international action to reduce emissions and is considered a ‘responsibility target’ – to be achieved through a combination of domestic emission reductions, the storage of carbon in forests and the purchase of emission reduction units from other countries. The ‘with measures’ projection estimates that New Zealand’s GHG emissions will be 23.6 per cent above the 1990 level in 2020. Without the effect of PaMs [policies and measures] GHG emissions are projected to be in 2020 37.5 per cent above the 1990 level. Projections show that it is expected that a net emission reduction of 12.0 Mt CO2 eq/year will be achieved by 2020 (based on a continuation of Kyoto Protocol accounting rules) – only a third of the level required to meet the lower end of the 10–20 per cent target range.
(Emphasis added)

Nick Smith's response is to highlight that it's a "responsibility target" - effectively claiming that we don't have to reduce our emissions, and that we can instead pay someone else to make the required reductions. Unmentioned by Smith is the cost of this shirking: by that stage carbon is expected to cost $50 a ton, which multiplied by the 24 million ton gap gives a cost of $1.2 billion a year. A competent government would be imposing more effective policy to reduce this cost and ensure that it is paid by the polluters responsible. National seems happy to leave things as they are. They won't be in government then (hell, most of their senior Ministers won't even be in Parliament), so their billion dollar a year failure gets to be somebody else's problem.

Again, we deserve better than this. We deserve a government which takes the issue of climate change seriously, rather than just reacting with spin and greenwash. We deserve targets which aren't outright lies, and policies which have some chance of achieving them. But we won't get that from National.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Jobs for the girls too

When the government passed its latest Canterbury Enabling Act, which gave Gerry Brownlee dictatorial power for five years, they tried to reassure us that there were checks and balances. For example, diktats by Brownlee would be reviewed by an independent panel, though he could ignore them and sign stuff anyway. Now we've seen just how much of a joke this "review mechanism" is with the government's announcement that it is appointing Jenny Shipley to the panel.

Yes, that's right. Faced with a demand for independent oversight, they instead appointed a complete party hack, to rubberstamp whatever Brownlee comes up with. Some "oversight".

But I guess that's what happens when you approach everything with a "jobs for the boys" attitude...

What's wrong with Labour

Last night's disastrous 3 News / Reid Research poll has caused a lot of commentary across the blogosphere. Comrade Trotter of course attempts to blame Labour's woes on it not being racist, sexist, and homophobic enough - which I think tells us more about Trotter's prejudices than it does about Labour. But the most jaw-dropping interpretation has to go to John Pagani, who lays the blame not on Labour's failure to present a clear alternative to National's disastrous policies, but on it not supporting them strongly enough:

Every time Labour attacks policies and a government that voters generally approve of they alienate themselves further from potential supporters who are swinging between Labour and National.


Insisting the public is wrong is a recipe for even more disaster. Attacking constructive things the government is doing is exactly the wrong option.

If anything, Labour should be pursuing more of a consensus approach, so that it can own more of the right direction.

Until two weeks ago, Pagani was one of Goff's senior advisors. If this is the quality of advice he was giving - that Labour should just shut up, sit on its hands, and wait its turn like good little careerists - then Labour is well rid of him.


Yesterday's Sunday news had more details of Tiki Taane's arrest, blaming it on a stupid police officer unable to distinguish between Taane's real name and his stage name. That's bad enough, and an example of how one police officer having a bad day can ruin yours - but it also had this outright disturbing statement from Police Association president Greg O'Connor:

NZ Police Association president Greg O'Connor agrees the lyrics were not the main reason for the arrest.

He said Taane's arrest was the result of "an episode of events".

"Any attempt to isolate the words and chants as the problem would be to minimise the event considerably. O'Connor says people in a position of power need to be responsible.

"We had another police officer seriously assaulted last week," he said.

"People like Tiki Taane need to be aware they are role models to certain sectors of society. They need to be aware of the impact they have on people."

What O'Connor seems to be saying is that Taane shouldn't be prosecuted for what he actually did, but because someone else, somewhere else, attacked a cop. In other words, Taane is to be a scapegoat for the anger of the police.

Whatever you call that, it isn't justice. And if O'Connor is truly representing his members on this, then I think we have a real problem in our police force.

No BORA vet of government promotion of religion

Last month I highlighted the case of the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust, a body established by the government to collect and distribute donations to victims of the Christchurch earthquake, whose aims explicitly include the advancement of religion. Following that post, I submitted an OIA request seeking the government's advice on the establishment of the trust, and specifically whether its objects had been vetted against the Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act (something which should happen for every government policy). Over the weekend I received the response: they had not. While the Cabinet paper seeking authority to establish the trust included the required certification of consistency with the BORA and HRA, it simply sought authorisation for the trust to be established and a deed to be drafted - actions which had no human rights implications. As for the deed itself,

There was no other specific report considering the objects of the trust against the NZBORA.
This is a serious failure on the part of the Department of Internal Affairs. The BORA applies to every act by the legislative, executive, or judicial branches of the Government of New Zealand. It applies to the drafting of the trust deed. While the department was given a brief to write as broad a deed as possible (and so just copied the discriminatory definition from the Charities Act 2005), the religion clause should have raised a red flag as a prima facie conflict with the rights to be free from discrimination and the right to freedom of religion. But apparently, it didn't. Or, if it did, they never bothered to document the justification (assuming there was one). Neither makes the department look good. Instead, they look like rank incompetents who wouldn't recognise a BORA conflict if it bit them on the arse.

I am not impressed.

New Fisk

A legacy of light from the sorrow of death


4.5% annual inflation. Meanwhile unemployment is brushing 7%, and the average wage rise in the last year was 1.7%, and only 1.4% if (like the majority of workers) you weren't in a union. No wonder people are feeling squeezed.

But the government is fine. They have $250,000 a year salaries, $185 a bottle taxpayer funded pinot noir, new BMWs with heated seats. They only have to worry about redundancy every three years (or never, if they have a good list spot), not next month or next week. They're in a completely different world from the rest of us. None of this affects them. No wonder then that they talk airily of leaving the market to sort itself out - because they're completely insulated from the very real suffering their inaction is inflicting on ordinary kiwis.

The first obligation of government is to protect its people. National has failed to do that. Instead, they have abandoned us to the recession, while taking care of their rich mates with tax cuts and bailouts. We deserve better.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

New Kiwi blog

The Stroppery

Friday, April 15, 2011

An inadequate response from Labour on the copyright bill

Yesterday, I asked Labour a simple question. Given that it supposedly opposed key clauses of the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Bill, such as guilt by accusation and termination, would it commit to repealing them next time it was in government?

Over on Red Alert, Clare Curran has given a response:

Labour will now consider the issues around repeal.
This is inadequate. Anyone who talks to politicians knows that "we'll consider it" means "not really". The actions of other politicians have rendered that phrase worthless - and Curran has been around more than long enough to know this. She's since had the opportunity to respond with something other than a soothing fob-off. She hasn't.

As I said, the internet is watching, and wants to know how to vote. If Labour wants to convince us that they stand for something other than the policy they just publicly voted for and helped to pass, then they have do a much better job than this.


That's the only way to describe this case from Australia. The body of an Aboriginal boy was found in a Northern Territory waterhole. He had head injuries and had been weighted down with rocks. Two sets of footprints led to the waterhole, but only one led away. Faced with this evidence, the police concluded that the death was accidental.

I think it would be fair to say that they wouldn't have reached that conclusion if the victim was white. But nobody cares about a dead Aborigine kid - especially not the Australian police.

New Fisk

'The Arab awakening began not in Tunisia this year, but in Lebanon in 2005'

Protest policing must be proportionate

In April 2009, at the London G20 protests, UK police responded to peaceful protestors by "kettling" them, then beating them with fists and batons for "failing to disperse". Today, the High Court found that those tactics were disproportionate and unlawful:

The judges heard police used the tactic of mass detention against protesters that they accepted were peaceful, with officers meting out punches to the face, slaps and shield strikes as they tried to move a demonstration against climate change.

Judges found that the force used by police was "unjustified", criticised "imprecise" instructions given by senior officers about releasing innocent people, and said the mass detentions for five hours were an unlawful deprivation of liberty under article 5 of the European convention on human rights.

Sadly, the police still seem to be in full denial, and are appealing. But I expect the higher courts to echo the ruling. Public order policing must be proportionate to the actual threat. And when both the chief inspector of constabulary and the Independent Police Complaints Commission have concluded that this incident was not, you know you're on pretty shaky ground.

The door is now open for every single one of the 5,000 protestors unlawfully detained that day to sue for damages. I hope they do. Because clearly, the message needs to be got through to the UK's police hierarchy that this sort of abuse of power is unacceptable, and directly attacking their budget through the courts is the only message they will understand.

Climate change: The latest inventory and the net position

The Ministry for the Environment released its latest inventory report [PDF] today. The headline data is shown in the graph below (stolen from p. vi) :


Gross emissions fell for the third year in a row, thanks to two things: good weather, meaning more water for hydro, and less need to burn fossil fuels for electricity; and the recession, which saw transport and agricultural emissions drop. Neither is anything to do with government policy, and Nick Smith, to his credit, acknowledges this. While the ETS has had a big impact on forestry (that 10 MT dip in net emissions in 2008 as deforestation came to an abrupt halt), it only came into force for energy and industrial emissions in mid 2010, so we won't know for two more years whether its had any effect (and even then, it may be masked beneath the ongoing effects of the recession).

The government also released its annual net position report, which predicts our Kyoto surplus to double from 11.4 million tons predicted last year to 21.9 million tons. Some of this is due to lower projected energy emissions due to the ongoing recession. But the bulk of it is methodological changes:

Emissions from the agricultural sector are now projected to be 7.5 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent lower than projected in 2010 (a drop of 4.2 per cent). This is because the methodology used to calculate agricultural emissions for the national greenhouse gas inventory has changed. An improved methodology based from the latest science research shows emissions from New Zealand livestock excreta is lower than previously estimated.

Net removals for the most likely scenario are projected to be 82.8 million tonnes, about 2.9 million tonnes higher than the 2010 most likely scenario projection of 79.9 million tonnes (a 3.6 per cent increase). This increase is primarily due to new estimates of deforestation from mapping of land-use change by the Land Use and Carbon Analysis System (LUCAS) completed for 2008 and 2009.

For the past few years MAF has been throwing a lot of money at scientists for improved methodologies which coincidentally show lower emissions. That money has clearly paid off. I don't doubt that the science is good and will withstand international review, but at the same time its a bit of a cheat because thanks to Kyoto's rules, any impact of these improved methodologies on our 1990 emissions doesn't affect our Assigned Amount. So in addition to the Kyoto scam of comparing gross and net emissions, we're also running a second scam of comparing high-emissions-methodology emissions from 1990 with low-emissions-methodology emissions today. And it suggests again a disturbing focus on massaging the numbers rather than on pursuing actual emissions reductions. But I guess the latter might force someone to change what they're doing, maybe even lose some money; cheaper to hire some flash accountants instead.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

SCF breached the terms of its guarantee

With Parliament under urgency to pass both the guilt by accusation copyright law and the Canterbury Enabling Act 2.0, today is a good day to dump bad news. And the government has, releasing hundreds of documents related to South Canterbury Finance. The key finding so far? The company violated the terms of its guarantee within the first two months:

The Reserve Bank recommended putting the failed finance company "on notice" after it discovered large transactions carried out in January 2009 had gone unreported.

Its letter to Treasury said the transfer of $89.6 million of loans from South Canterbury to its parent company Southbury in January was in breach of the deposit guarantee scheme contract signed on November 19, 2008.

South Canterbury was required to get permission from Treasury for any transfer of assets in excess of $21.36 million, the Reserve Bank said.

Treasury had not been informed of the transaction.

Another $90 million loan to a related party also came under fire.

Despite the contract making it clear similar transactions above the value of $22.3 million needed consent, there was no independent certification from the Crown, the Reserve Bank said.

So, SCF was guaranteed, then asset-stripped under our noses. And yet the National government repeatedly renewed the guarantee. That decision already looked foolish, now it looks simply insane.

Jobs for the boys

The government has appointed Richard Griffin to chair the board of Radio New Zealand. Who is Richard Griffin? The Minister's press release calls him "a director of a Wellington public affairs company and a former RNZ political editor". Oddly, they forget to mention the real highlight of his career. Fortunately, Griffin's web page is not so modest:

From 1993 to 1998 he served the New Zealand Government as Chief Press Secretary and Senior Media Advisor to Prime Minister Jim Bolger and the New Zealand Cabinet.
So, our public broadcaster will now be headed by a National Party hack. Jobs for the boys is ugly and corrupt enough normally; when its used to drop political hacks into control of a state broadcaster, it looks downright dangerous.

The CERA farce

This morning, after passing a US-style guilt by accusation copyright law, Parliament began debating the committee stage of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Bill. Normally in a committee stage debate MPs debate specific amendments to the bill. But this morning, they couldn't, because the government hadn't finished drafting them yet:

Labour this morning asked to suspend consideration of the bill because the Government had not produced the formal details of changes it was proposing. The request was denied by the chair.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said it was not essential that the formal details for changes were before Parliament while the bill was in its final stages.

As a legislative process goes, this is a total abortion. The government called urgency, then stalls. Any amendments actually put to the House will then be rushed through without proper consideration. And then politicians wonder why the public has such a low opinion of them...

A question for Labour on the copyright bill

Over on Red Alert, Clare Curran responds to criticism of Labour's position on guilt by accusation by essentially arguing that they were only in opposition and so had limited power to affect the outcome. Fine, they played the hand they were dealt, and it was a weak one. But what I really want to know is what will they do when that hand is stronger?

After all, Labour plans to be in government one day. When they are, they will have the power to change this law and remove its most obnoxious features of disconnection and guilt by accusation. My question to Labour is: will they? Will they repeal this atrocity, which they have said they disagree with? Or will they let it remain in place?

Its a simple question. Yes or no?

I'd appreciate an answer. The internet is watching, and wants to know how to vote.

Its law

The Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Bill passed its third reading this morning. Which means that from September 1, its guilt by accusation.

This is an appalling law, passed by an appalling process. The level of ignorance and hypocrisy shown by our legislators while doing it ("the internet is SkyNet!" "File sharing is illegal, now I'm off to listen to some music my friend pirated for me!") is just icing on the cake. People are rightly angry about it; the question is what we can do with that anger to force change.

The government is solidly in the pockets of the copyright mafia on this, so I think the best option is to focus on Labour. They voted for the bill as part of a compromise which saw the implementation of the disconnection penalty - which they oppose - being delayed. Hitting them hard and demanding a solid commitment to repeal not just disconnection but also guilt by accusation is the way to go. Meanwhile, I think the best short-term action is to look at how parties voted last night (National, Labour, ACT and the Maori Party for, the Greens, Hone Harawira and Chris Carter against), and vote accordingly in November.

"Protecting investors"

Yesterday we learned that one of our Mighty Atlases of business, Mark Hotchin, was such a financial whizz that he was scammed by a Ponzi scheme. The reason we're only hearing about this now is because at the time Hotchins' name was suppressed. The justification? To protect investors in his finance company, Hanover Finance, from the shock of finding out that the man they had entrusted their money to was a moron.

That's not "protecting" investors - its enabling their predation. If the director of a financial institution can't understand the maxim that "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is", then that is something that strikes at the credibility of that institution, and which its investors very much need to know. But instead, Hotchin's identity was kept secret, to protect his reputation for financial propriety - in the process allowing him to squander hundreds of millions of dollars of investor's money, while fleecing them for enormous dividends.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The return of guilt by accusation

The government is abusing urgency again, this time to ram through the final stages of the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Bill. The bill repeals the (never implemented) section 92A regime, which provided for guilt by accusation, and replaces it with a new regime providing for... guilt by accusation. An SOP from the government softens the language here a bit, so that an infringement notice now merely creates a presumption of guilt rather than being conclusive evidence of it, but that's not much better. it also makes little sense. As IP lawyer Rick Sherra points out, there's no logical connection between the ability to fill out a form correctly, and the material in it actually being true.

The Bill of Rights Act affirms that everyone has the right to natural justice. This law would deny that, replacing it with a stacked system biased in favour of the accuser. And when overseas experience [PDF] has shown that a high proportion of infringement notices are issued in bad faith, by people with no claim to hold copyright or even by businesses targeting their rivals, such a system is actively dangerous, and a recipe for injustice.

The bill also still provides for disconnection as a penalty, albeit with a delayed implementation. As I've argued before, this is a disproportionate penalty, and an active denial of citizenship, the electronic equivalent of cutting out our tongues.

Parliament should not be passing this law, and it especially should not be passing it in these circumstances, under urgency granted for a bill to rebuild Christchurch. Sadly, our government seems intent on compounding injustice with deceit.

For transparency in trade negotiations

At the moment the government is negotiating several international trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement with significant implications for New Zealand. Unfortunately, it is doing so in secret. This has several unfortunate consequences. First, it means that we cannot judge the costs and benefits of a deal, and therefore whether it is in our interests. Second, it allows the government to lie to us about what they are putting on the table and sell us out while avoiding accountability. Third, it means the deals have no democratic legitimacy, being effectively agreed behind our backs and without our consent.

This has to change. It is unacceptable for a democracy to conduct its trade policy - or any policy in such a fashion. Kings do business in this way, not democracies.

A coalition of unions and NGOs has lodged a petition on the topic, seeking a matter of urgency a select committee hearing on the TPP talks, even if it is constrained by a lack of hard information. It also asks Parliament to resolve that New Zealand should take the lead in seeking agreement from the other eight countries in the negotiations to the release of draft texts and other documents.

And it wants a parliamentary resolution requiring the Government to release unilaterally the documents it has tabled, including its offers on services trade, investment, government procurement and market access for goods.

These are all good ideas, and its good to see Labour and the Greens supporting them. But sadly the government seems to be dead set against it, with Tim Groser denouncing the idea that us dirty peasants could ever be allowed to see what our government is doing. Apparently if we could see the deals, we'd never agree to them. But to me, that seems to be an argument for openness rather than against it.

Where there is secrecy, there can be no trust, and no legitimacy. We have a strong presumption of openness around the formulation of domestic policy. Its time that presumption was extended to foreign policy as well.

The people of Christchurch deserve better than this

Last night I commented on the government's draconian Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Bill, and noted that I would have liked to submit on it. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to put together anything in time, but legal academic Dean Knight was. You can read his verdict here. Its not particularly favourable.

Dean was fortunate enough to have someone duck into parliament last night to hand his bill directly to the committee. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely they will be receiving any other similar submissions - "the Committee is not generally accepting other unsolicited submissions on the Bill". Only insiders get to comment. And some of them are not happy about this process:

Mayor Bob Parker and Cr Yani Johanson said they found out about the [select committee] meeting yesterday.

Johanson said it was "outrageous" that he was told at such short notice – by a community board member who had heard the news in a media report.

"I am just shocked that they didn't tell the councillors, and we haven't been invited."

Councillors had not been given a draft of the bill.

"It's a real concern if this is the respect they are going to show the council and the community, by doing things in secret and not being upfront and open," he said. "It doesn't bode well for the future."

This is a complicated bill with long-lasting effects which will affect people's local-body democratic rights for a significant amount of time. It needs time for a proper analysis, and it needs time for the Christchurch City Council to be able to advocate properly for the interests of the people it represents. Instead, its being Brownleed - rammed through, with only a show of consultation. The people of Christchurch deserve better.

Another reason not to fly JetStar

There were already plenty of reasons not to fly Jetstar, but now we have another: they discriminate against the disabled:

Jetstar's treatment of two high-profile disabled campaigners has been condemned as unacceptable by Disability Issues Minister Tariana Turia.

Tanya Black and Dan Buckingham – presenters of TVNZ disability show Attitude – had been due to fly from Auckland to Wellington yesterday morning but were not allowed on to their aircraft after they were told they each needed to fly with their own caregiver.

After an embarrassing standoff of 20 minutes or more, they ditched Jetstar and bought new tickets to Wellington on Air New Zealand.

Jetstar told The Dominion Post it would be apologising, and refunding their fares. It confirmed part of the airline's concern was about how they might get to the toilet on the hour-long flight.

This is clearly unlawful under the Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in access to vehicles and the provision of goods and services. While there is an exemption for public safety, the last paragraph shows that its clearly not the issue here. Instead, its that Jetstar thinks that its deliberate understaffing to cut costs gives it an exemption from the law.

Jetstar needs to be told that this is not acceptable. Hopefully the Human Rights Commission will make that very clear to them.

The Canterbury Enabling Act 2.0

In September last year, in response to the first Canterbury earthquake, Parliament passed the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010. The Act elevated Gerry Brownlee to a virtual dictator, able to amend or repeal almost any law with a flick of his pen. While the powers have not yet been abused, the Act was still a constitutional outrage. In a democracy no man should have so much power with so little oversight.

Today, the government's response to the second Canterbury earthquake, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Bill, passed its first reading. The bill is even more outrageous and undemocratic than the original. The least objectionable parts are those relating to the development of a recovery strategy and plans. No-one disputes the need for this sort of planning, but the Act puts it in the hands of CERA. Which means that the big decisions around the future of Christchurch will be decided not by its people, but by Gerry Brownlee. Who while he is a Christchurch MP, isn't exactly in the same position of democratic accountability as the elected representatives of the Christchurch City Council.

And after that it's all downhill. CERA has the power to demand any information about anything from anyone. No warrant, no oversight, no safeguards. This is more power than the Serious Fraud Office, and with fewer checks and balances.

CERA, which means the Minister, also has wide powers to "assist" the rebuilding of Christchurch. They can:

And all of this without any effective rights of appeal and with only limited rights of compensation.

And to cap it all off, there's the same dictatorial power to amend laws by regulation originally seen in CERRA v1.0.

This is too much power, in too few hands, with too few checks and balances to be safe. Democracies don't do this sort of thing. But then, as we saw with ECan and with the original CERRA, National's first response to any problem is dictatorship.

I would like very much to submit on this bill. But I can't. Its being rammed through under urgency, with only a limited select committee process (basically, the Local Government and Environment Committee will be hearing from selected insiders tomorrow; ordinary concerned citizens are shut out of the process). And it'll be law by Friday. I'm just glad I don't live in Christchurch...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

National rejects the environment II

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, you'd be mad to think that deep sea oil drilling can be permitted without strict environmental controls. But that's exactly what our government is doing. In its mad rush for mineral resources - a desperate gamble born of its lack of any other economic plan - they have allowed foreign oil company Petrobras to start exploring off East Cape. If they find oil, then we'll have drilling there - with no safeguards to prevent a blowout and massive spill like that seen in the US.

Local iwi and environmentalists aren't happy about this threat to our coastline and our environment, so they're out there protesting, passively disrupting the survey. John Key's response? Send in the navy! Faced with a clear decision between people's democratic rights and the interests of foreign corporate polluters, Key chose the latter. Which means he's not our Prime Minister, but Petrobras'.

National rejects the environment

In late 2009, the government proposed digging up our national parks. The proposal was not popular; 50,000 people marched down Queen Street, and 47,000 signed a petition opposing it and demanding that schedule 4 be extended to cover other conservation areas. Today the Local Government and Environment Committee reported back [PDF] on that petition. The National-Maori Party-ACT majority position?

We do not support the petitioner’s suggestion that a future Crown Minerals Act amendment bill include additions to Schedule 4...


We are satisfied that ecological areas, marine mammal sanctuaries, national reserves, and world heritage areas have sufficient protection, and that mining activity in these areas, where mining is permissible, is carefully monitored and circumscribed. While we appreciate the intent of the petition, we consider it more appropriate for additions to be made to Schedule 4 on a case-by-case basis.

So, there you have it: National, ACT and the Maori Party reject further environmental protection. If you want to protect those areas, you know who to vote for in November.

The wailing of the privileged

Since the Labour party list was released on Sunday, its been attacked for being "dominated" by women and Maori, unionists and gays, while "underrepresenting" white men. But as Rob Salmond shows over on Pundit, the reality is rather different. The list looks like New Zealand, with the differences in representation generally being out by a few percent (which means 1 or 2 MPs). The only group to be systematically underepresented are women; the only groups to be systematically over-represented are Pacific Peoples (who arguably are strongly represented because of Labour's strong support in South Auckland), and straight white males.

In other words, what we have here is the usual story: straight white males like O'Conner, Trotter, and Gower seeing a list which treats people (relatively) equally, and howling. They're not massively over-represented, therefore they must be under-represented. But the stats don't lie; this is just the wailing of the privileged at being forced to accept that they're not so special after all.

More on Mediaworks

The Mediaworks story is in the news today, with articles in both the Herald and NBR. In both cases though, I'd take serious issue with their take on things.

Firstly, John Drinnan's piece in the Herald says that the deal was intended to stave off problems with MediaWorks' capital structure. What he doesn't mention is the sections of the reports stating clearly that that capital structure was imposed on them by the company's foreign owners, Ironbridge, who had loaded the company with debt to fund its takeover. Also unmentioned is the overall conclusion of MED officials based on the Deloittes' modelling: that the company was profitable in the long-term, that it had other options, and that it did not need our money.

Meanwhile, the NBR's Matt Nippert relies on MediaWorks insiders to finger Gerry Brownlee as the culprit behind the loan [paywalled]. Brownlee was certainly involved in pushing it to Cabinet, but the fundamentally the timings don't work. According to the article, MediaWorks successfully met with Brownlee after their August 9 meeting with Key. But the paper trail clearly shows that Joyce had made the crucial decision to negotiate (and laid down the parameters of the deal) back in July. After that, it was just a matter of working out the details (5 payments or 6, 11.25% or 13.25%?). Brownlee's support may have been essential at Cabinet, but he wasn't the prime mover here.

Nippert also makes the same mistake as Drinnan, highlighting concerns about capital structure while ignoring the conclusions about underlying profitability drawn from their own books. But then, that's the entire story in nutshell: a business sticking its hand out and demanding money, while all the evidence shows that they do not in fact need it.

Putting the fear into Cabinet

So, if MediaWorks didn't need our money, how did they manage to walk off with $43 million of it? It boils down to one thing: fear.

In early October, despite advice from his department that assistance was unnecessary, Steven Joyce sought permission to take an urgent paper to Cabinet to gain approval to negotiate a "one-off" restructuring of broadcasting licence fee payments. The Cabinet paper gives the following justification in its executive summary:

The new option recognises a worsening of trading conditions in the recent economic recessions hat has reduced cash flow from advertising revenue. One of the major licensees (MediaWorks Ltd) has broken existing banking covenants, as the gearing by its offshore parent company Ironbridge Capital Ltd was arranged in better market conditions.
The first sentence had been thoroughly debunked by Deloittes' financial modelling. As for the second, this is the first time it has been mentioned. It is not mentioned in any of the weekly briefings to the Minister. It is not mentioned in any of the other briefings. And its not mentioned anywhere in the main body of the Cabinet Paper itself. Instead, there's some other details about MediaWorks' problems:
Details of an interim restructure arrangement for MediaWorks by its parent company Ironbridge have been provided to MED officials. According to Ironbridge, one of the conditions of this arrangement is the banks' requirement that licence payments be spread over a five to six year period. Ironbridge states that MediaWorks cannot fund the payment over a shorter timeframe. Mediaworks is seeking a decision on the spreading of licence renewal payments before 31 October this year, as this is the date by which MediaWorks is required to present its longer term financial restructuring plan.
(Emphasis added)

But broadcasting licence payments in New Zealand are not normally spread over a five to six year period - they're an upfront lump sum for a tradable property right. MediaWorks apparently made its bankers a promise it couldn't keep. As for why its the government's problem, there's this bit on "risks":

If no action is taken, there is a risk that some RBA members will default on the payments...

MediaWorks operates both radio and television services. If it were to default on its current licence renewal obligations, or move to liquidation, there is potential of a wider destabilising effect in both sectors. The television business has a higher profile domestically and internationally, and there could possibly be some commentary on New Zealand's overall economic position.

In case that wasn't enough, the one-page summary prepared for the Cabinet Economic Growth and Infrastructure Committee hyped the threat even more:
If no action is taken, there is a risk that some RBA members, including the two major networks (MediaWorks and The Radio Network), will default on payments. This has the potential for destabilising effects in the radio and television industries.
Finally, the supplementary paper when it actually reached Cabinet on 19 October claimed that
at least one of the radio companies may have experienced a credit downgrade
Clearly, the entire New Zealand broadcasting industry was under threat, and the government had to Act Immediately to Save It!

But this is the first time that any of this has been mentioned. Its not mentioned in any of the earlier briefings. Its not mentioned in the weekly updates to the Minister. its not mentioned in any of the emails around seeking approval or drafting the Cabinet Paper. Reports of communications with MediaWorks show them as quite relaxed, facing a "non-critical" banking deadline on September 11 (when they would have to pay interest), but asking for a decision by October 31 to meet Ironbridge's restructuring deadline. There is no suggestion anywhere in this advice of a possible default, let alone of liquidation. But regardless of where it came from, it was persuasive; Cabinet rubberstamped the deal, and MediaWorks (or rather Ironbridge, because they're the major beneficiaries, with their extortionate dividend stream secured) laughed all the way to the bank.