Friday, December 30, 2011

Absolutely damning

Last month, I highlighted the new Internal Administration Circular 11-10 [PDF], which requires immigration officials not to record reasons for their decisions, in violation of both the right to justice and the Public Records Act. I was curious about how the Department of Labour had come up with a policy which apparently violates New Zealand law, so I asked them, requesting all advice and communications on its drafting, including any legal advice on its consistency with the Public Records Act or on Immigration New Zealand's ability to defend a challenge to its decisions. Today I received a fat packet of emails and drafts - and they are absolutely damning.

The first point to note is that the offending clause was a rather late addition. The first draft of the revised circular took exactly the opposite approach, requiring a full rationale which

should show that the Immigration Officer has taken into consideration all the relevant facts of the case and has come to a logical, reasonable decision based on those facts.
This was then meant to be checked by a second officer to ensure quality decision-making. The first thing to go was the second-party check, after concerns were raised about it not matching existing practice ("officers make their own decisions"). The discussion email [PDF] calls this a "classic quality vs timeliness issue" - and the Department seems to have decided on timeliness.

As for the recording of reasons for decisions, according to the timeline provided [DOC], this decision was made in early July after concerns were raised by "Resolutions" [PDF]. The immigration officers concerned were remarkably frank about their reasons [PDF]:

[Resolutions] strongly feel that including rationale just opens us up to the risk of judicial review and ombudsman complaints.
And the ultimate reason for excluding them?
I wouldn't want to make it mandatory to put something (rationale) in AMS [DoL's database] which is likely to generate more work and complaints for branches.
Yes, that's right: they did it explicitly in an effort to thwart complaints.

There were no drafting instructions or Ministerial signoff for this decision. The new circular was developed by a business analyst, who according to the cover email [PDF] decided to "just forge ahead and redraft [it] and see if people scream". There was no legal advice on its consistency with the Public Records Act, and the matter is never raised in any of the email discussion - though in their cover letter the Department asserts consistency, maintaining that the note that a decision has been made is enough for compliance:

In the Department’s view, the recent guidance around section 61 clearly articulates the most prudent business practice in terms of recording decision making under section 61 given that section 61 decisions are made in an officer’s absolute discretion.
In my view, this conflates prudent business practice around avoiding complaints with prudent business practice around records management. But that, I guess, is ultimately a decision for the Chief Archivist to decide.

All-up, we have a government department which has acted deliberately to thwart judicial and Ombudsman oversight, for reasons of its own convenience, apparently in violation of New Zealand law. The question is whether the Minister will act - or whether he will effectively endorse this situation with his silence.

New Fisk

Turkey's long road to reconciliation

Friday, December 23, 2011

Live by the market, be buried by the market

Margaret Thatcher is one of Britain's greatest criminals, whose disbelief in society caused her to destroy it. As a former Prime Minister, she is in line for a state funeral when she dies (which will provide a focus for protest over her toxic legacy). Which is rather ironic, given her beliefs about the role of the state. And so someone has started an e-petition (a formal UK government consultation exercise which can trigger Parliamentary debates) demanding that her funeral be privatised:

In keeping with the great lady's legacy, Margaret Thatcher's state funeral should be funded and managed by the private sector to offer the best value and choice for end users and other stakeholders. The undersigned believe that the legacy of the former PM deserves nothing less and that offering this unique opportunity is an ideal way to cut government expense and further prove the merits of liberalised economics Baroness Thatcher spearheaded.
And they're right. Thatcher was an anti-statist. Surely she should live - and be buried - by those ideals, rather than leeching a final fling at the expense of hard-working taxpayers. Anything less would be hypocritical.

Meanwhile, on the Guardian, Sunny Hundal has some ideas on what Thatcher's privatised funeral could look like:

Consider the endless possibilities, for die-hard Thatcherites, of privatising the event. I think we can agree it should be ticketed so it can turn a profit. Perhaps an IT company (let's call them Crapita for example), could sell tickets via the internet. You may have to wait a couple of months to get the system off the ground but at least it'll work … eventually. If it's anything like the privatisation of the railways, none of the funeral services would run on time and you'd end up with 500 people in a church meant for 200.

But there could be optional extras otherwise denied by the state. You could pay to have an opportunity to wail, as North Koreans seem to have perfected. Wailing while stabbing a picture of Arthur Scargill should obviously cost much more. Opportunities to sell Thatcher memorabilia (a picture of her with Pinochet, sir?) would be endless. It could even boost our sagging economy.

The television rights to the event should be auctioned off, perhaps for a private library dedicated to Thatcher (with John Maynard Keynes banned from the economics section of course).

Unmentioned: selling the right to spit on the corpse or piss on her grave (because its going to happen, so they might as well get money for it). Hell, they could even provide the service, so that those unable to attend in person could have someone do it for them.

Morality? Taste? The market does not know of such things. And if you're happy with the mass unemployment, poverty and degradation which were the inevitable result of Thatcher's policies, you can hardly get prissy about a little matter of degrading a corpse. But if you want to be hypocritical about that too, you can always pay for it not to happen. That's what the free market would want.

The shock doctrine in Christchurch

So, after two earthquakes and a year of struggle, Christchurch residents get to have more misery inflicted upon them, in the form of the privatisation of their hospitals:

Doctors are accusing the Government of starting the privatisation of health services, with a suggestion the private sector could help pay the $600 million cost of rebuilding Christchurch's public hospitals.

The Government is looking at the proposal, which includes allowing private investors to build and manage hospital buildings.

Tony Ryall says that this has "worked well overseas". In fact its been a complete disaster, with health authorities forced to cut services, close wards, sack staff and impose charges in order to pay the inflated fees of the (government-mandated) private providers. And its a bad deal financially: a UK National Audit Office study has found that PPPs there have not been value for money, and have resulted in the government paying £262bn so far for assets worth only £55bn (and that's so far; there are still 37 years to go on the contracts). But it funnels government money into the pockets of donors and cronies, which Ryall would probably consider success.

As for doing it in Christchurch, this is pure shock doctrine: take a disaster, and use it to ram through unpopular "reforms" which no-one would ever vote for if given the choice. If the people of Christchurch don't want their health system turned into a price-gouging "profit centre" for foreign parasites, they need to stand up against this. And if we don't want similar treatment to be inflicted on us eventually, we need to support them. This is just a foot in the door to the mass privatisation of public services, and the government abandoning its key role in the health sector to private enterprise. If you value your health, you need to help stop it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

This will be interesting

Yunus Rahmatullah is a Pakistani citizen. In 2004 he was captured in Iraq by British special forces, handed over to the US, and rendered to the Americans' prison in Afghanistan. Now, a UK court has found that he is being unlawfully detained, and ordered the UK government to demand his return so he can be released.

This will be interesting. Rahmatullah was handed over under a Memorandum of Understanding which allows the UK to also demand his return. But the Americans are alreay dragging their feet, and may be unwilling to effectively release someone they regard as an "enemy combatant". But if they don't, then they'll be breaking their word to their closest ally. This won't just place any future prisoner transfers in doubt - it would also expose British officials to war crimes charges for breaching the Geneva Conventions.

But its also potentially relevant here. New Zealand troops in Afghanistan have similarly taken prisoners and handed them over to the US. As with the UK, those prisoners are our continuing legal responsibility. Meanwhile, New Zealand courts pay attention to UK precedent because of the close parallels in our legal system. Which means that our prisoners (who remain our legal responsibility, even while in US custody) could similarly challenge their detention, and possibly succeed.

The meatworkers win

Two months ago, Canterbury Meat Packers locked out its staff at CMP Rangitikei in an effort to extort a 20% wage cut and force its staff to work harder for less money. Today, the parties reached a settlement - and CMP has been forced to back down:

Following negotiations yesterday a settlement was reached that has now been accepted by the workers and while some pay cuts have been agreed, these have been reduced to a level that the workers were prepared to accept. Importantly all the non cost conditions that the company sought to also remove have been put back in the new agreement and the workers will be paid a $500 payment on return to work. There are a number of other improved provisions in the agreement.
So, not total victory, but still a win, and made possible because the community stood behind them. OTOH, in the bigger picture, its the workers who made the sacrifice, while their bosses keep getting bonuses. And that is fundamentally unjust.

Climate change: Europe acts on air travel

The European Union has defeated a legal challenge to its plans to include airlines in the European ETS - meaning that from January 1, any plane travelling to or from Europe will have to start paying the cost of their pollution. Good. Air travel is estimated by the IPCC to be responsible for 3.5% of overall climate change, and is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Its exclusion from the EU-ETS was an anomaly which should have been corrected long ago. And now that they're in, they'll have a direct economic incentive to clean up their act, use more fuel efficient aircraft and flight plans to minimise their environmental impact.

Meanwhile, the US, whose airlines challenged the law, is refusing to accept it, and has passed a law making it illegal to pay European carbon charges. Which means their airlines will either have their planes seized on the tarmac for non-payment, or will no longer be able to fly to Europe.

(Meanwhile, I'm waiting for John Key to again whine that it is "unfair" for air passengers to pay for their pollution. No, its not. What's "unfair" is them not paying for it. Why should the rest of us environmentally subsidise rich jet-setters?)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

MMP review: Overhangs

MMP is currently being reviewed, with an issues paper due out in February. In anticipation of that, I'm doing a series of posts on the review questions. This one will focus on the fifth question:

What should happen when a party wins more electorate seats than it would be entitled to under its share of the party vote
Or, what should we do about overhangs?

Overhangs are a Bad Thing. They distort the proportionality of the House, which is the reason we shifted to MMP in the first place. But they're also a necessary consequence of the system, the price we pay for having electorates. Given that we're committed to a mixed member proportional system, and list-only PR is not on the table in this review (it would require a referendum, both legally and morally), the question is how to deal with them.

Currently, the law has two ways of doing this. If the party is registered, we expand the size of the House. If its not, or an independent wins a seat, we don't. This is obviously inconsistent, and there seems to be no reason for the distinction (though, as an independent or an unregistered party has never won a seat, it doesn't particularly matter). One popular suggestion is that we should fix the size of the House and follow the second method for all extra MPs. I disagree, because this seems to distort proportionality even more. Its bad enough if a party wins more electorates than its entitled to. Its adding insult to injury if you then expect the other parties (and, indirectly, their voters) to pay for it.


Just before the election, in a fairly transparent display of kicking criminals for votes, the government introduced the Prisoners' and Victims' Claims (Redirecting Prisoner Compensation) Amendment Bill to the House. As the title suggests, the bill amends the Prisoners' and Victims' Claims Act to remove any possibility of abused prisoners receiving financial compensation, regardless of the severity of the abuse. As convicted criminals, they will have no rights.

Today, the Attorney-General found that to be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act [PDF] and with our obligations under international law. Their reasoning is worth repeating:

Enjoyment of the basic human rights is the entitlement of every citizen. Denial of an effective remedy to a particular group of society excludes that group from the protection of the Bill of Rights Act.

The exclusion of prisoners from the protections of the rights affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act is objectionable. Prisoners are subject to the day to day control and exercise of coercive power by the state, and as such are especially vulnerable to misuse of state power.

This group's position is recognised by rights relating to those in custody in s23(5), which provides that everyone deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the person. Denying prisoners the effective protection of the rights affirmed in s 23, specially enacted for their protection, is unjustifiable.

Sadly, I expect the National Party, driven by a desire to grub votes by pandering to the "hang 'em high" brigade, will ignore this. Which neatly highlights the problem with the Bill of Rights Act: it is predicated on MPs doing their jobs, and taking s7 reports seriously as a warning to stop and think before passing a law. They don't. Very few debates on bills subject to a s7 report engage with the human rights concerns raised, and Ministers seem to regard such reports as a sign they're "tough", a badge of honour rather than an indictment.

If Parliament won't do its job as the guardian of our rights, its time we took it off them and gave it to the courts by entrenching the BORA as supreme law. Politicians have shown that they cannot be trusted. Judges can be. At the least, they have to give reasons - which is more than our politicians ever do.

Threatening democracy

This is unbelievable. Just days after being confirmed as Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee is interfering in the Christchurch City Council and threatening to use his powers to sack councillors who oppose Mayor Bob Parker:

Days after being reappointed, Brownlee waded into Christchurch politics, accusing some councillors of being ill-informed and not supporting Mayor Bob Parker.

"There is a case for some elected members of the council to step up and learn a little more about what is going on than they know at the moment.

"We need to get past the idea that we are waiting for someone else to do it," he said. "I have great sympathy for the mayor. I don't know that he is all that well supported by the council."


Brownlee said several people had asked him to "sack the bloody council and you guys [Cera] can get on with it", but Cera was not big enough to take over all of the council's role.

"We are a small organisation and you need people who know where things are at."

However, he did not rule out using his special powers to sack councillors or assume some of the council's responsibilities.

Sacking an entire council and turning Canterbury into a dictatorship was bad enough; threatening politically motivated sackings of elected representatives in order to make life easier for your political allies is even worse. But apparently its now par for the course for our dictatorial National government.

No abstention

As expected, the Greens have responded to John Key's demand for vassalage with a polite "fuck off and die". And given the contents of today's speech from the throne, its not surprising. Through its mouthpiece, it promised the weakening of environmental protections, the gutting of the ETS, more mining and drilling, as well as privatisation, more inequality, and more cruelty towards both the poor and those in the power of the state. This is the exact opposite of what the Greens stand for, and therefore they couldn't support a government promising such savagery to remain in power. They'll still explore ways they can work together, on the few positive things National plans to do, but the general approach will be one of opposition.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Swearing in

Last year, Speaker Lockwood Smith banned the longstanding practice of making an alternative affirmation (to the Treaty, to the people of New Zealand, whatever) in an effort to enforce a monolithic (and outdated) view of our constitution and culture. Anyone making an alternative affirmation would be ejected from the chamber, rather than simply asked to do it again properly. By banning this low-key form of protest, he invited more disruptive forms - and that was demonstrated today, with Hone Harawira making a loud speech about the Treaty as he was approaching the Clerk to be sworn in. Entirely within Standing Orders (or at least those enforced by the Clerk today) - but rather more disruptive to the chamber than the previous low-key protests.

And that's what happens when you ban quiet protest: it doesn't make people shut up, it doesn't make the issue go away, it simply makes them angry and invites more disruptive methods to get the message across.

The Greens, BTW, seem to have decided as a caucus not to protest individually, but to make the affirmation and call on the government to modernize it afterwards. Key's comments in that article about there being no need for change shows the futility of that approach. If the Greens want change, they need to highlight the issue. There are ways of doing that politely, while complying with Standing Orders (e.g. holding their own public swearing-in ceremony before or after the formal one, with modern oaths, and inviting everyone of like mind to come along). But they've sadly missed the opportunity for doing that this year.

Good luck with that

National has begun talks with the Greens on a policy agreement, but are playing hardball, with John Key demanding abstention on confidence and supply in exchange for any policy crumbs.

Good luck with that. The Greens have repeatedly stressed that it is highly unlikely that they will support National in this way. I think that's putting it in too positive a light. The chances of the parliamentary Green party, let alone the Green membership (who get to vote on any substantive agreement) giving any sort of support on confidence and supply to a government committed to polluting our rivers and oceans, destroying the global climate, digging up our conservation land and selling our state assets is zero. The cost of such support would be for National to abandon those policies, the chances of which are also zero. So, if the parties want to work together in any way, then they need to accept that any deal will not include anything in the nature of confidence and supply, and instead find areas where they do have common ground.

Neither party needs to make a deal here. National already has its majority, and the Greens understand that they are unlikely to get anything significant (and certainly not anything National didn't want to do anyway). Which makes Key's demand for vassalage as the price of anything all the more puzzling. But maybe that second-term arrogance is kicking in already.

Monday, December 19, 2011


David Shearer has announced Labour's new lineup, and it looks like a total rejuvenation for the party. The tired old faces of the Clark era (and their baggage) are gone, relegated to the backbenches. Instead, prominence is given to Labour's class of 2008, people like Grant Robertson, Jacinda Ardern, Su'a William Sio and Phil Twyford. Yes, the front bench has some former junior Clark Ministers on it - Parker, Cunliffe, Cosgrove, Mahuta - but the overall tone is of generation shift.

Despite their drop in rankings, the old guard get to keep significant responsibilities - for the moment. Parekura Horomia still gets to run Maori Affairs from the backbenches, and Phil Goff takes up Foreign Affairs again (which is what he's good at). But with these people expected to retire in the next term, they'll need to relinquish their responsibilities sometime before the next election to allow time for their replacements to settle in and get up to speed.

Overall, it looks like a good lineup. It sends the message Labour needs to send: change! Now we've just got to hope that they're up to it.

MMP review: Open lists

MMP is currently being reviewed, with an issues paper due out in February. In anticipation of that, I'm doing a series of posts on the review questions. This one will focus on the fourth question:

Whether voters or political parties should decide the order of candidates on a party list
As someone who favours giving power to voters rather than parties, my answer is "yes". But how can it be done?

Wikipedia has information on the various open list systems used overseas. The basic system is that voters can tick a party, and (or by) tick one or more candidates on that party's list. Which means that you need a bigger ballot paper, or multiple ballot papers (one per party), or numbered candidates and a box to write in. Any candidate who gets more than a set threshold (usually some fraction of the list's quota, the effective number of votes required to elect a single MP on it, and varying with the weight assigned to the party's choice) goes straight to the top of the list, in order of votes received.

The effectiveness of such a system depends on how many voters use it. In the Netherlands, most simply vote for their chosen party's top candidate in order to ensure they enter Parliament. In Sweden, over 25% of voters pick a candidate, and low-ranking candidates are regularly elected against their original list-ranking. Given the significant extra expense and hassle involved, I think we'd want to see some research about how many people would actually use this option, and review it after a couple of elections to see whether the use justified that hassle. But I think its worth a serious look. One of the biggest complaints about MP is that it took power from voters and gave it to the party's list makers (as opposed to its local selection committee); open lists would give us that power back.

New Fisk

The adventures of Tintin in Beirut

Friday, December 16, 2011

MMP review: By-elections

MMP is currently being reviewed, with an issues paper due out in February. In anticipation of that, I'm doing a series of posts on the review questions. This one will focus on the third question:

Whether list MPs should be able to stand as candidates in a by-election
The reason for this is because of the 2009 Mt Albert by-election, in which three of the top four candidates were sitting list MPs. The result was that voters were in a sense not really voting for these candidates to enter Parliament, but for the next person on their respective party lists. This seems a little odd, and led to calls to ban sitting list MPs from standing (or rather, force them to resign in order to stand, which would effectively be the same thing). But I think this oddity disappears when you stop to think about what an electorate vote means under MMP.

Under MMP, as we keep being told, we have two votes. The party vote you give to the party you want to represent you in Parliament. The electorate vote you give to the person you want to be your local representative. And that latter bit is the key here. In MMP by-elections, we're no longer voting for who we want to see in Parliament, any more than we are in electorate contests in general elections. We're voting for who we want to represent us, locally. Whether that person is currently a list MP, and whether their victory will see them joined by the next person on the list is strictly irrelevant to that question.

Backing this up is the culture which has emerged under MMP of list MPs adopting local electorates. These list MPs are the natural candidates in any by-election. They already have an established relationship with their local constituents, and may be regarded by some of them as a preferred choice. Prohibiting them from contesting by-elections denies voters that choice. It does mean that it doesn't really matter which of them wins - they're fighting over the right to call themselves MP for X rather than MP from X - but that's largely true of general elections as well. MMP was meant to make electorates meaningless, and turn them into pure competitions about local representation. And dual candidacy in by-elections lets that happen.

OTOH, its not the most important issue in the world. If the review comes back with a recommendation to prohibit list MPs from contesting by-elections, its not going to distort our democracy or cause anyone to lose any sleep. But to some extent, I think its a non-issue anyway; the initial grumpiness seems to have been driven by the spectre of Judith Tizard, and was entirely absent during the subsequent Mana and Te Tai Tokerau by-elections, despite both being contested by list MPs.

Irrelevant and out-of-touch

Oh dear. It looks like "our" foreign monarch doesn't actually know who "her" representative in New Zealand is:

The Governor-General is The Queen's representative in New Zealand. As such, he or she performs the same constitutional role in New Zealand as The Queen does in the United Kingdom.

The current incumbent is the Honourable Sir Anand Satyanand, GNZM, QSO.

Satch left office at the end of August. Jerry Mateparae has been Governor-General for the last three months. I guess no-one bothered to tell his "boss". Which just shows how irrelevant and out of touch the foreign monarchy is.

Feudal relics

The Republican Movement of Aotearoa New Zealand highlights the feudalism which still lies at the heart of our constitution:

The Governor-General appointed a new government today. By doing so he used one of his "reserve powers" - the ability to appoint the Prime Minister and Cabinet (technically the Executive Council) without anyone "advising" him to do so. All on his own, he re-appointed Prime Minister John Key. In the smoke and mirrors world of "our" constitutional monarchy, the fact that we had an election - where we all had a say last month - doesn't feature.


The Governor-General's re-appointment of the Prime Minister is a nicety. It has no practical value other than to remind us that under the constitutional monarchy, power comes from a monarch. It's as if that election we had was just to arrange the seats in the Governor-General's debating club.

This is a relic of feudalism, when the monarch was supreme, Parliament was just their debating club, and the Prime Minister was the monarch's Prime Minister. But that hasn't been the case in our constitutional structure for over three hundred years, and while there has been further evolution since then (notably the introduction of democracy), its been the case ever since that it is Parliament which makes governments, not the monarch. And yet we continue the old feudal fiction in our public ceremonies. Other examples are the Speaker of the House being granted the House's privileges by the Governor-General (rather than asserting them at axe-point), and the House being summoned "to tell the members of Parliament the Government’s reasons for bringing Parliament together to meet" (rather than it meeting by itself as the independent and legitimate source of political power).

Like the oath, these feudal relics do not reflect the values of modern, democratic New Zealand. And its time we expunged them. Parliament should formally elect the Prime Minister, rather than them being appointed by an unelected head of state. Its privileges should be set in statute, rather than being dependent on the grace and favour of the representative of a foreign monarch. And it should set its own agenda, rather than being ceremonially told by that foreign monarch's representative what it should discuss. Symbols matter, and ours should reflect our values, not those of a long-ago and far away foreign country.

MPs and oaths

On Tuesday, the new Parliament will meet for the first time and MPs will be sworn in. The oath they use is a matter of some contention, requiring allegiance to a foreign monarch rather than the people of New Zealand, and failing to mention the Treaty of Waitangi, our founding document. It reflects the values of nineteenth century Britain, not those of modern New Zealand.

The Greens at least are aware of this, and a number of them (including Holly Walker and Gareth Hughes) have set up a survey asking for your views. At the least, it will inform them in their work to reform the oaths and turn them into something more appropriate for a modern, democratic society. But it may also be a prelude to a few making a symbolic protest over the oath to highlight the issue.

A Trojan horse

Over the weekend the government signed a confidence and supply agreement with the Maori Party [PDF]. A core provision of this agreement was a "Ministerial Committee on Poverty". You'd think from its title that this committee would be about finding ways to reduce poverty, but you'd be wrong. Instead, its about finding ways for the government to save money:

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English is clear what the new ministerial committee on poverty he heads won't be about - it won't set about throwing money at the problem of what he calls "hand-wringing or writing strategies".

It will be concerned with getting the best results from the hundred of millions of dollars being spent on social service delivery, he says.

In other words, "efficiencies" and cuts. And actual poor people and their lives and life-chances? They will be sacrificed to the almighty god of austerity. So much for the Maori Party actually helping its people.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Bill English, who will be chairing the Committee, seems to think that they won't need to actually measure poverty in any way because "a lot of that is already reported in the MSD's Social Report that it puts out each year" [audio, about 2 minutes in]. I guess he didn't get the memo that the Social Report has been cancelled, precisely to stop it from reporting those measures. Which doesn't exactly give us reason to have faith in him or his committee.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An "extraordinary achievement"

With the last US soldiers scheduled to leave Iraq within days, US President Barack Obama is praising their "extraordinary achievement". What "achievement" is that? A million civilian casualties? Three million refugees? It's extraordinary all right (and all the more so because the perpetrators of this atrocity are still walking free rather than in a dock in The Hague) - but only a sociopath would call it any sort of "achievement".

Still, at least its over. The problem is how to stop the US from engaging in this sort of atrocity ever again.

Protecting the Mackenzie Country

In 2009, the Mackenzie District Council issued Plan Change 13, which sought increased protection for the area's natural environment by classifying it as an outstanding natural landscape (which has legal consequences under the RMA). The plan change was watered down after public consultation, but that wasn't good enough for the region's farmers, who wanted any suggestion of natural landscape values (which might prevent them irrigating and factory farming) expunged. So, they appealed to the Environment Court - which, after 18 months, has delivered them and the Council a stinging rebuke by restoring the original classification:

Environment Court judge Jon Jackson's 170-page interim decision, released yesterday, suggested the commissioners' decision did not go far enough.

The Mackenzie Basin as a whole was "an outstanding natural landscape", rather than an area which features outstanding landscapes, as suggested by the hearings commissioners, he said.

Judge Jackson was also concerned the plan change "left hanging" several important issues about the basin's environment – including land-use intensification and wilding pine control.

"Not only are there matters of national importance involved, but several of the core elements of sustainable management," he said.

"If there is only one foreseeable, in fact, obvious, need for everyone, it is that they wish to experience the outstanding natural landscape and foreground to Aoraki-Mt Cook."

This isn't over yet; the Council can still appeal, as potentially could the various farmers who tried to weaken protections. But it significantly shifts the baseline towards protection and away from intensive farming in the Mackenzie. And hopefully that shift will continue.

The US is now a third world nation

Running water and sewage is a basic of living in the developed world, their absence one of the defining features of underdevelopment. So its shocking to see that, thanks to the economic crisis and local government corruption, poor people in the US are now going without these basics:

Tammy Lucas is the human face of a financial and political scandal that has brought one of the most deprived communities in America's south to the point of what some local people believe is collapse.

She says: "If the sewer bill gets higher, my light might get cut off and if I try to catch up the light, my water might get cut off. So we're in between. We can't make it like this."

Mrs Lucas's monthly sewerage rate bills - the amount levied by the county to flush away waste and provide water for baths and showers - has quadrupled in the past 15 years. She says it is currently running at $150 (£97) a month, which leaves little left out of her $600 social security check for food and electricity.

So, the US is now a place where ordinary people can't afford even to drink from the tap or shit in their own toilet. Meanwhile, of course, the people at the top hiked their pay by 30 - 40% last year. No wonder people are occupying Wall Street...

Monarchy is no safeguard

One of the myths of monarchy is that it is the ultimate constitutional safeguard, with the monarch able to step in and sort out any constitutional crisis. The current crisis in Papua New Guinea is a perfect disproof of that. Thanks to the refusal of the previous Prime Minister to accept the ruling of the Supreme Court, they now have two parallel governments: two Prime Ministers, two cabinets, and two Governor-Generals. As for the Queen "sorting out" the crisis, she doesn't want a bar of it:

While either of the two sides could seek the royal assent to their choice as governor-general, the Queen is likely to try to avoid a decision until the turmoil resolves internally.

Experts said Buckingham Palace will be very unlikely to put phone calls from the Pacific nation through to the Queen.


"She would most likely not act until it became absolutely clear who was the prime minister and comprised the national executive council. While there was any doubt on that question, she would be unlikely to act ... Buckingham Palace will make sure that whoever answers the phone will give a placatory answer but they will be canny in not getting the Queen involved. If I were her, I would become rather hard to contact."

So much for the "ultimate safeguard". If Papua New Guineans want a solution, they'll have to find it themselves. As for the Queen, she'll just rubberstamp the eventual outcome, no matter what. Which makes you wonder why anyone bothers with her.

Churnalism from Garth George

The Herald's Garth George has already got a reputation for plagiarism, and he's at it again, lifting the core of this morning's column on the evils of the Greens from a press release from Right To Life head Ken Orr. Compare and contrast: here's "George":

As a pro-life mate of mine reminded me this week, in 2008 the Greens in the Victorian Parliament voted for the decriminalisation of abortion. This meant that it was no longer a crime to kill an unborn child and Victoria now has the most permissive abortion law in the world. It provides that any woman can demand an abortion for any reason.

The Greens in Australia also support same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption, and an education system which teaches that homosexuality is normal.

Last year the Greens promoted bills to legalise euthanasia in the New South Wales, Western Australian and Victorian Parliaments. Senator Bob Brown, the leader of the Greens in the Australian federal Parliament, has said that passing euthanasia laws is a top priority.

My mate reckons that the New Zealand electorate ought to recognise that in our Parliament the Greens represent a threat to the protection of the right to life of unborn children, the elderly and the ill and to the institution of marriage as exclusively between one woman and one man.

He points out that the Green Party in Germany has similar policies.

And Orr:
The election of 14 Members of Parliament from the Greens Party is a matter of grave concern. The electorate should be aware of the hidden agenda of the Greens Party.

In 2008 in the Victorian Parliament the Greens voted for the decriminalisation of abortion which meant that it was no longer a crime to kill an unborn child. Victoria now has the most permissive abortion law in the world. The law provides for abortion on demand and a woman can now demand an abortion for any reason.

The Greens in Australia support same sex marriage and same sex adoption. The Greens also support the education system teaching that homosexuality is normal.

In 2010 the Greens promoted Bills to legalise euthanasia in the New South Wales, Western Australian and Victorian Parliaments. Senator Bob Brown the leader of the Greens in Australia has said that passing euthanasia laws was a top priority.

The electorate should recognise that the Greens represent in our Parliament a threat to the protection of the right to life of unborn children, the elderly and the ill and to the institution of marriage as exclusively between one woman and one man. The Greens Party in Germany has similar policies.

This is pure churnalism, a word-for-word regurgitation of PR with no additional research or journalistic work. While its par for the course for time-pressed hacks, its a bit odd to see it in an opinion column. Surely the Herald is paying George for his opinion, not that of whichever press release last crossed his desk?

The giveaway was that he used Australian examples. Ironically, he didn't need to - there are plenty of examples of the New Zealand Greens supporting equality and human rights for all. They put up a bill for same-sex adoption in 2006, they support same-sex marriage as a matter of party policy, and they recognise the danger of homophobic bullying in our schools. While they don't seem to have policy on it, they've overwhelmingly supported death with dignity and abortion rights. If George had bothered to spend five minutes with Google, he would have learned all that - and avoided looking like a lazy plagiarising hack in the process.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

MMP review: Dual candidacy

MMP is currently being reviewed, with an issues paper due out in February. In anticipation of that, I'm doing a series of posts on the review questions. This one will focus on the second question:

[Should] a person should be able to stand as a candidate both for an electorate seat and on a party list?
Being able to run as an electorate candidate and on the party list is known as dual candidacy. And there are two main gripes about it. The first is "zombie MPs", incumbent candidates who are defeated in their electorate but return via the party list (examples this term include Paula Bennett, Clayton Cosgrove and Chris Auchinvole). The feeling here is that these MPs have been "given the boot" by their electorates, and so it is unfair in some way that they return "by the back door". But this, like the electorates themselves, is a legacy of FPP and its parochial structure of representation. Under MMP, there are two ways for MPs to be elected: via an electorate, and via the party list. The former requires a local constituency, the latter a national one. Zombie MPs have lost the first, but they retain the second, which is a democratic mandate for their election. National Party voters across the country voted for Bennett and Auchinvole, which is why they're in Parliament. And its entirely inappropriate for local hicks in Waitakere or West Coast-Tasman to exercise a parochial veto on that national-level support.

(People might also want to remember that there are different scales of loss. Was Paula Bennett, who lost by 11 votes, "given the boot" by the people of Waitakere? Was Brendon Burns, who fell 47 votes short, "kicked out" by the voters of Christchurch Central? In a tight electorate contest, there doesn't seem much of a mandate for preventing someone from taking up a list seat).

But while everyone focuses on "zombie MPs", they miss the real picture. Its not just defeated incumbents who can return via the list, but defeated challengers - people like David Parker, Hekia Parata, and Russel Norman. All of these candidates contested unwinnable electorates in an effort to build a constituency; all lost. Without dual candidacy, that would be that - meaning that you simply would not get such high-profile challenges. While this might work for the major parties (who have no shortage of candidates, and some sort of process by which candidates who try and fail in an unwinnable seat might eventually get a crack at a safer one), it would be absolutely disastrous for the smaller ones. Without dual candidacy, smaller parties could not risk any of their high-profile talent in electorate contests. At best, this would mean that small party voters could never vote in an electorate for anyone they actually wanted to win it; more likely, it would mean they largely abandoned electorate races to focus solely on the party vote. And that would be a tragedy for our democracy.

As a final note, I think the culture of list MPs adopting electorates, combined with the slow dying-off of old FPP generation, will see these concerns disappear. Many electorates now effectively have multiple MPs serving them, with voters making no distinction over who won or lost the electorate race and who came in on the list. As that becomes more ingrained, FPP-driven concerns about "zombies" should fade.

Burns is out; let the Dolchstoßlegende begin!

The judicial recount in Christchurch Central is complete, and National's Nicky Wagner has won by 47 votes. Which means its about time for the Labour hacks to start their angry Dolchstoßlegende muttering about how their guy would have won, if it wasn't for the Greens - just as they did over Epsom and Ohariu. Obviously, this is true in a mathematical sense; the 2,321 votes won by David Moorhouse is far more than Wagner's tiny majority. But its predicated on an absolutely toxic assumption: that Green supporters owe Labour their votes, and that they have some obligation to stand aside to let Labour win. Which is absolutely nonsensical.

To point out the obvious: the Greens are their own party, with their own priorities. If Labour wants their electorate votes, it has to earn them. Clearly, Labour does earn some of those votes (Iain Lees-Galloway earned mine). Equally clearly, it doesn't earn them all. Stamping your feet and demanding support out of some assumed feudal overlordship of the left is unlikely to help earn more. And doing it where the outcome is absolutely meaningless (as here) just makes you look even more arrogant.

(And yes, it is meaningless. Under MMP, whether voters in Christchurch Central chose Nicky Wagner or Brendon Burns makes no difference to the overall outcome. It makes no difference even in terms of the Labour list; Burn's success would simply have meant the elimination of some other Labour MP. The only person it matters to is Brendon Burns. But while its a tragedy for him, and for Labour's organisation in Christchurch, it means absolutely nothing in terms of the balance of power in the House).

Austerity fails in Greece

For the past year, whenever the IMF, ECB, and politicians have talked about Greece, its always been about the need for austerity: more cuts, more sackings, less spending. And now, that austerity has had the predictable result: economic collapse:

The International Monetary Fund slashed its growth forecasts for Greece and warned that ever-deepening recession was making it harder for the debt-ridden country to meet the tough deficit reduction targets under its austerity programme.

In a report likely to fan financial market concerns about a possible debt default, the regular health check by staff at the Washington-based Fund said the situation in Greece had "taken a turn for the worse".


The IMF, together with the European Union and the European Central Bank has imposed tough conditions on Greece as the price of financial support that has allowed the government in Athens to continue paying its bills. In the fifth report carried out since the start of the crisis 18 months ago, IMF officials suggested that the austerity programme might need to be eased in view of the damage being caused to the economy by the recession.

At least they seem to finally be realising that they've made a mistake. Unfortunately, it will be the Greek people, rather than these unelected foreign technocrats, who will suffer the consequences.

Farmers lie about dirty dairying

Dirty dairying is one of our country's biggest environmental problems, resulting in polluted waterways and undrinkable (and unswimmable) water. But the government fobs off concern about it, pointing to the "Clean Streams Accord", an agreement between Fonterra, central government and regional councils, under which Fonterra promises to get its farmers to clean up their act voluntarily. Every year, MAF produces an annual snapshot of progress (collected here), and every year it shows that farmers are slowly but surely fencing their waterways, complying with the RMA, and setting nutrient budgets. So we don't have a problem, right?

Wrong. That report is based on what farmers tell Fonterra assessors every year. And it turns out that they lie, overstating their compliance on excluding stock from waterways by 100%:

The Clean Streams Accord’s Snapshot of Progress claims that 84 percent of Fonterra dairy farms have fully fenced off all Accord-type waterways. However a technical report by MAF, also released today, reports that just 42 percent of farms had achieved complete stock exclusion from Accord waterways.
(Link added)

Which neatly explains why, despite annual snapshots showing regular progress, our lakes and streams get dirtier and dirtier. Our farmers are not committed to resolving this problem. They just tell the assessors whatever they want to hear, and continue on behaving in their old, polluting ways. Fonterra gets greenwash headlines, the government gets to pretend there is no problem, farmers make money at the expense of the rest of us... and our environment continues to be destroyed.

Obviously, this isn't good enough. Self-regulation is a failure. If we want this problem solved, then we need real regulation. Which in practice means regional councils stepping in and requiring total stock exclusion from their waterways in their regional plans, and being willing to vigorously police and prosecute farmers to force compliance. Otherwise, they'll just continue doing exactly what they're doing: shitting in our rivers, and then lying about it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


A woman in Saudi Arabia has been executed for "witchcraft and sorcery". This is simply obscene. The death penalty is bad enough, but applying it on the basis of superstition and fairytales makes a total mockery of justice.

Climate change: Canada cheats on Kyoto

Canada is withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol. On the one hand, its not exactly surprising; the Harper government is full of climate change deniers, and openly hostile to international law. On the other hand, its also a blatant violation of their word, an attempt to cheat the Protocol and avoid meeting their obligations under it. Since they've done nothing to cut their emissions, that would have meant paying someone else to make equivalent cuts under the Protocol's "flexible mechanisms". The Canadian government is talking up the cost of this - C$13.6 billion, or C$1,600 for every Canadian - but that's what happens if you let your emissions grow. And just imagine what that C$13.6 billion could have done to green Canada's energy supplies...

The real worry is that this sets a bad precedent, and invites other polluter nations to do the same. Why meet your obligations, if you can just withdraw? Whatever comes after Kyoto (if anything does), we need to make sure that it cannot be cheated in this way again.

Constitutional crisis in PNG

Last year, Papua New Guinea's long-serving Prime Minister Michael Somare was ousted due to absence. The removal was immediately challenged in the courts, and today the Supreme Court has declared it unconstitutional and ordered Somare's reinstatement. But at the same time, Parliament rammed through retrospective validating legislation declaring that the removal was legal; they also seem to have advised the Governor-General (who of course complied) to revoke Somare's leave of absence as an MP and declare his seat vacant - making it difficult for him to resume his position. So, PNG now seems to have two Prime Ministers, one backed by the courts, and one by Parliament, though the Governor-General seems to be backing the former for now. As for the current (previous?) government, they'll be facing contempt of court charges for their blatant attempts to interfere with the judicial process.

This could go in all sorts of unpleasant directions (there has already been an armed standoff outside Government House, and reports of gunfire). The safest, of course, would be for Somare to resume his position and face an immediate confidence vote (seeing as he can't govern without the backing of Parliament anyway). The question is whether PNG will take that path, or whether one faction or another will start a coup.

It's David

Journalists tweeting from outside the Labour caucus room report that David Shearer is the new Labour leader, with Grant Robertson as his deputy. The question now is whether he'll live up to expectations, or whether Labour has made a terrible mistake in gambling on charisma rather than proven competence. And while they're not my party, it does matter; Labour's ability to present a credible alternative Prime Minister and win votes is vital to the success of any left-wing coalition.

Of course, there are other questions too: whether he'll clean out the dead wood (the fact that they are his primary supporters suggests not), whether he'll retain the left-wing platform Labour ran on this election, or shift right in an effort to "me too" National... and whether he'll use Cunliffe's obvious talents, or waste them on the backbenches in petty punishment (sadly, Labour's internal culture suggests the latter - but I'd love to be proven wrong). Either way, Labour's got a leader, and we're stuck with them for at least three years. And we just have to try and make the best of it.

New Fisk

Alaa al-Aswany: 'Overthrowing Mubarak was too good to be true'

Monday, December 12, 2011

Climate change: Ruining my future

So, Durban is done and the fix is in. Oh yes, they have a "framework" for a new climate deal with "legal force", covering both developed and developing nations. But even if its successful, it won't be finalised until 2015, and won't come into effect until 2020. The graph below, from Shaping Tomorrow's World, tells you everything you need to know about the effectiveness of such a deal:


The longer we wait, the harder the task of keeping stabilising CO2 concentrations gets. By choosing to wait until 2020 before doing anything, our governments have made the job more than twice as hard, forcing us to cut emissions by 9% a year rather than 3.7%. And by doing so, they've also set themselves up to declare the problem to be "too hard" and avoid doing anything at all.

In other words, our governments at Durban have just decided to let the planet burn, so they can continue to live in artificial, unsustainable comfort for another decade. This isn't just a matter of them ruining the world for their children and grandchildren; they're also ruining it for you and me. I expect to live for another forty or fifty years, barring accidents. And these rich, polluting fucks have just decided that the world I'm going to be living in will be much worse than the one I live in now. As you might be able to tell, I'm pretty pissed about that.

And just to top it all off, New Zealand is part of the problem. We've abandoned Kyoto, refused to be part of the EU-led deal for a provisional second commitment period, and done our best to spoil negotiations for everyone else. Naturally, the National Government is pretending that this is some sort of "success". But its not. We have collaborated in ruining the future, and all so farmers can continue to make money by mining our environment and externalising their costs onto everyone else.

Australia is now more progressive on climate change than we are. Australia. Thanks a lot, National.

MMP: Against the threshold

Now we've voted to retain MMP (by a bigger margin than when we first adopted it in 1993), the statutory review clause kicks in, and we get a chance to improve it. The review will be conducted by the Electoral Commission rather than politicians (though politicians will still get the final say, since they'll have to pass the legislation through parliament), and they'll release an initial consultation paper and call for submissions in February. It will focus on six specific questions, which do not include the Maori seats or the size of Parliament. The first of these is obviously the threshold, so here's my thoughts on it:

What thresholds parties should have to cross to qualify for an allocation of list seats in Parliament? None. The threshold distorts our democracy, preventing the natural rise and fall of parties, and creating perverse and downright toxic incentives for parties to either gift seats to others or attempt to disenfranchise large blocks of voters. Many European proportional systems have no threshold, and our system would work perfectly well applying the Sainte-Laguë formula directly to the party vote.

The "justifications" for the threshold - "extremism" and "instability" - turn out to be myths when examined closely. There simply are no political parties in New Zealand toxic enough to justify disenfranchisement (if it can ever be justified). Looking at the counterfactuals (with the caveat that voting patterns would undoubtedly change without a threshold), the 2011 election would have seen the Conservatives and ALCP gain representation; 2008 would have given us NZ First, the Kiwi Party, and Bill & Ben. None of these parties represent anything to be afraid of (well, no more so than ACT), and they are as worthy of democratic representation as you or I. And none of those results would have led to the feared "instability". While there would have been more small parties in the middle, there would also be easy governing coalitions available, and the presence of multiple possible support partners dilutes the power of each. The oft-cited bogeymen of Israel and Italy are the result of those countries' respective political cultures, not of their electoral systems.

Which is why supporters of the threshold seem increasingly to be relying on the idea of "effective parties" as a defence. The ideas is that a small party of less than six MPs cannot function effectively in Parliament, due to lack of debate spaces, primary questions, and select committee spots (not to mention punitive proxying rules). Against that, we've seen several small parties - the Progressives in 2002 - 2005, ACT and United Future in 2005 - 2008, ACT and the Maori party in 2008 - 2011 - do exactly that. But more generally, the question of whether a given party is "effective" or not can only be answered by the voters it represents. If Parliament's rules reduce the effectiveness of small parties, then the onus is on the House to change those rules, not on voters to change their preferences.

The Maori Party's deal

National signed a confidence and supply agreement with the Maori Party yesterday, giving it a comfortable majority on budget votes. But the deal itself [PDF] is very loose. The Maori Party agrees to support the government on confidence and supply and procedural votes. In exchange, they get a couple of Ministerial portfolios (worth about $70,000 each to Turia and Sharples) and a pile of small policy wins. The headline policies there - whanau ora and a Ministerial Committee on Poverty - aren't actually worth much; the first is just an agreement to "progress" and "evolve", which means SFA, while the latter will be chaired by Bill English and stacked with National Party Ministers like Tony Ryall and Paula Bennett who believe that poverty is a personal moral failing rather than a pressing social ill, and therefore won't go anywhere (though interestingly, John Key is now saying it might develop an official poverty measure, less than a year after saying that we didn't need one - so we might get some progress, though at the same time its substituting measurement for action).

The real gains in this agreement come from the small stuff: more money to fight rheumatic fever (a third-world disease we shouldn't have in New Zealand), more home insulation, more help for ECE and job training, and a new focus for TPK. And a biggie is not making privatisation a confidence vote, leaving the Maori Party free to oppose it (though given that they're the party of Big Iwi, whether they actually will is another question entirely).

(And yes, while this makes Peter Dunne the key vote on controversial issues like asset sales, contrary to The Standard's fantasies, he's not going to oppose them. His support agreement includes support for National's "Post-Election Action Plan", which includes privatisation. Having given his word, I don't expect him to break it).

From the Maori Party's perspective, its not bad given that National didn't actually need their votes. From National's its giving themselves cover, as well as playing the long game and locking the Maori Party in for 2014. Having supported National for two terms now, they're going to find it difficult to change sides and support Labour. Which means that if the latter want to be in government, they need to up their own game, rather than just rely on a coalition realignment.

New Fisk

Bankers are the dictators of the West

Friday, December 09, 2011


Normal service will resume on Monday.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The obvious question on charter schools

As we all know, National's support agreement with ACT included an out-of-the-blue infliction of charter schools. This failed American model will be trialled first in Christchurch East and South Auckland - both strong Labour electorates. Which invites an obvious question: why aren't National and ACT trialling these schools on their own kids? Why aren't they trialling them in Epsom, Helensville, and the North Shore? Surely if these schools are all they claim they are, then they should be beating down the door?

Sadly, the answer is equally obvious: not even their supporters believe the schools will work - or at least, not strongly enough to risk the future of their own children (or their political career) on it. So instead we have the usual story: the children of the poor get to be guinea pigs for the crackpot theories of the rich. And if it doesn't work out, well, its not as if anyone important suffers, is it?

If Key and Banks want to run this experiment, they should put their money where their mouth is: run the trial in their own electorates, and send their own kids to them. The fact that they won't speaks volumes.

Hope for Russia?

Russians went to the polls over the weekend in legislative elections, which seem to have been the usual con-job: stuffed ballot-boxes, intimidation, 146% turnout in some regions. But where in the past they would have meekly accepted this as the way things are, they're protesting about it. And now they've been joined by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who has called for a re-run:

Mr Gorbachev told Russian news agency Interfax in Moscow: "I think they [Russia's leaders] can only take one decision - annul the results of the election and hold a new one."

The former leader, 80, initiated democratic reforms in the final years of the USSR but rapidly lost popularity and influence after the emergence of the new Russian state under the late Boris Yeltsin.

"Literally by the day, the number of Russians who do not believe that the declared election results were honest is increasing," he said.

"In my opinion, disregard for public opinion is discrediting the authorities and destabilising the situation."

I don't think the Russian regime will listen - this time. But the fact that people are standing up and objecting to fraudulent elections is some cause for hope. Fixed elections can only prevail as long as people accept them. If they don't, if there is a mass public rejection of the results, then things tend to change very quickly. While I don't think it will happen this time, its a sign that Russians' patience with this sort of despotic behaviour is wearing thin. Which if it continues to build, should see change in the relatively near future.

A challenge to our new MPs

Parliament will sit on 20 December for the swearing in of new MPs and the election of a Speaker. Last time this happened, a number of MPs (including Te Ururoa Flavell and Hone Harawira) did not make their affirmations in the prescribed form, instead swearing allegiance to the Treaty of Waitangi. Over the course of the term, they were joined by others, including (IIRC) Gareth Hughes, Kevin Hague and Catherine Delahunty. This was a long-standing tradition in our Parliament; opinions on our constitution differ, and those of such views were allowed to represent their constituents and express them before mouthing the words required by law. But earlier this year, Lockwood Smith overturned that tradition, ejecting Hone Harawira from the House in an effort to erase those differences and enforce his preferred cultural and political values. Since then, he has forced through a change in Standing Orders to continue to enforce those norms.

Of course, that doesn't make those differences go away. And this election, we've had more MPs than ever elected representing the new New Zealand, whose loyalties lie not with an old woman 19,000km away, but with our founding document and their fellow citizens.

Pretty obviously, the state opening presents an opportunity for these MPs. And so I challenge them: stand up for what you believe in. Make your oath or affirmation to the Treaty, to the people, first, then do it "properly". And if the Clerk throws you out of the House for the day, so much the better! When Lockwood Smith changed the rules to enforce his values, he invited the state opening to be turned into a farce. And that is exactly what our MPs who believe in a new New Zealand and a new constitution should do.

Update: Added Kevin Hague to the list. He has some thoughts on the affirmation here:

In the past several MPs - including the Maori Party's and some in the Greens - have altered the oath to include the Treaty of Waitangi before being stopped and told to deliver the correct wording stipulated by law.

Green MP Kevin Hague said if he was re-elected he had every intention of doing so again, but would have an "ethical dilemma" if the Speaker laid down the hard word beforehand.

"For an oath to be meaningful it needs to be meaningful to the person giving the oath. What MPs in New Zealand should be swearing allegiance to is to New Zealand, and it is appropriate to include allegiance to the Treaty in that."

I'm hoping he'll stand by this on December 20.

Secret justice in Fiji

What's worse than a sedition trial? A secret sedition trial! Radio New Zealand International reports that five men charged with sedition in Fiji are to be tried in secret, with the public and media excluded:

Fiji Village says the Magistrates Court in Suva today ruled that the public and the media will be barred from court during the case.

The state’s application for a closed court argued it was in the interests of public safety and the fact that other people allegedly involved in the case have not yet been arrested and charged.

It is alleged that the five conspired to writing seditious words in public places in Suva last August.

There is only one reason for doing this: that the government's "evidence" will not be convincing to the public, and the stitch-up obvious. Which is precisely why civilised countries demand that their trials happen in public, under full media scrutiny: to ensure the fairness of the outcome, and to ensure public confidence in the integrity of the system. But its been obvious for a while that the justice system in Fiji has been corrupted, with judges leaned on or sacked and replaced to produce the government's desired outcomes. The fact that they feel they must now operate in secret simply reinforces the perception that their court process can no longer be trusted to stand scrutiny in the light of day.

English bullshits on inequality

On Tuesday, the OECD pointed out that we are a world leader in inequality, and recommended higher taxes on the rich as the core of a solution. Bill English disagees, saying its not the answer. So what is?

In one sense, English is right. There is more than one way to curb inequality. Japan, for example, has a strong social contract, with jobs for life and social restrictions against runaway earnings at the top. But somehow, I don't think that's on the table (English wouldn't stop rorting his housing allowance simply because it was immoral, so he's hardly going to take a pay cut for the sake of social cohesion). High-paid jobs and low unemployment are another part of the solution, but National isn't interested in that either (their policy of high unemployment, insecure employment, eroding employment rights and sub-inflation increases to the minimum wage is all about preserving a low-wage economy and allowing employers to make higher profits by short-changing their workers). Then there's benefits to top up the incomes of those at the bottom. But National is cutting those, and is unwilling to ensure a tax base which can fund them. Which brings us back to the need for higher taxes on the rich, and especially on wealth...

So, when Bill English says "higher taxes are not a solution", he's actually saying "we are not interested in inequality". His interviewers should call him on that bullshit, and hold him to account for it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Even Treasury thinks ACT is mad

Stuff reports that Treasury - which isn't what anyone would call "moderate", let alone "left-wing" - opposes ACT's spending cap legislation as too extreme:

Officials wrote in April: ''The Treasury does not support imposing constraints on the ability of government to set fiscal strategy via hard parameters in legislation.''

In the impact statement, Treasury argued future governments which did not want to be bound by the rule would get around it by giving tax breaks or increasing charges or tariffs.

It also concluded there would be instability if the rule ''was likely to be overturned shortly after introduction'' by another government.

Treasury instead recommended a review of the Public Finance Act.

And its not the first time. Here's what they thought of ACT's other pet issue, legislated regulatory standards [PDF]:
We do not support the Taskforce’s proposed Bill [which the ACT Bill was base don - I/S]. We doubt the chosen principles can attract the broad-based support necessary to induce enduring behavioural changes, and compliance costs could exceed benefits. The interpretive direction presents a particular risk of unintended outcomes.
Instead, they recommended better Parliamentary review - a proposal which has now been formally adopted in the National-ACT confidence and supply agreement.

So, what does it say about a NeoLiberal party when even Treasury thinks its policies are mad?

The European Commission's answer to the Eurozone crisis

Foreign dictatorship. Yes, really:

The European commission could be empowered to impose austerity measures on eurozone countries that are being bailed out, usurping the functions of government in countries such as Greece, Ireland, or Portugal.


A confidential paper for EU leaders by the EU council president, Herman Van Rompuy, who will chair the summit on Thursday and Friday, said eurobonds or the pooling of eurozone debt would be a powerful tool in resolving the crisis, despite fierce German resistance to the idea.

It called for "more intrusive control of national budgetary policies by the EU" and laid out various options for enforcing fiscal discipline supra-nationally.

This is madness. All it does is swap economic instability for political instability. We're already seeing in Greece that people will not put up with austerity for the sake of the bankers when imposed by an elected government. Imagine how they'll react when its imposed by foreign officials in the interests of a foreign power, without any suggestion of a democratic mandate.

Europe's great achievement has been to spread democracy from the Atlantic to the Baltic. Now they want to throw that away, while releasing the most toxic forms of nationalism from their box. And all for the sake of the banks. If Europe goes down this path, then the European Project might as well be over - because it will no longer be worth supporting.

Fresh Python

Terry Jones: War drums are beating for Iran. But who's playing them?

Climate change: Justice?

One of the UK's policies for tackling climate change is Air Passenger Duty, a banded tax on (carbon-intensive) air travel intended to discourage it. And in the wake of our misbehaviour at Durban, they've just hiked the rate, from £85 (NZ$170) to £92 (NZ$184) per passenger coming to New Zealand.

Its a long-planned move, of course, but at the same time there's just a little tinge of justice about it. And it may be a sign of things to come. Our government clearly is uninterested in acting on climate change. But the consequence of that is that other nations are less inclined to listen to our special pleading when they adopt measures to curb it. And this, in turn, is going to have consequences for us: on our tourism, and on our exports (and in the latter case, those consequences will be inflicted precisely on those responsible for the foot-dragging: farmers). The question is how much the government is willing to pay to continue its regressive policies - and how much of its international reputation it is willing to burn.

Climate change: Another fossil

New Zealand continues its shameful conduct in Durban, winning another Fossil of the Day:

New Zealand has been acting inconsistently in the KP negotiations. It has insisted that it could not constitutionally agree to provisional implementation of a second commitment period despite its internal policy stating that it can.

Further, the Government formally announced on 30 November that interim Environment Minister Hon. Nick Smith would be attending COP-17, only to change its mind on 1 December. New Zealand has also blocked discussions on carry over, wanting enough carry over to fully cover five years’ worth of LULUCF emissions.

Ultimately, this series of events has led to other negotiators describing New Zealand as 'deliberately inconsistent' and 'problematic for a thousand reasons', with its 'extreme positions on a number of issues [making] it difficult to reach consensus on anything'.

Given that we pursue a mana-based foreign policy, that last paragraph is disastrous. The impressions we make at Durban of deceit and untrustworthiness will carry over to our other negotiations, and have consequences there. But National doesn't care about that; all they care about is shielding their polluting farmer friends for another few years, no matter what the cost to the rest of us.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Climate change: Shameful

The world is currently meeting in Durban, South Africa, for talks on the future of the Kyoto Protocol. Unfortunately New Zealand is already distinguishing itself as a roadblock to negotiations:

The New Zealand Government is jeopardising its good name in international negotiations at this fortnight's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban. It has been identified as one of a small number of States stalling progress in forming an international climate agreement. Other parties have privately condemned its conduct and predict it could risk the possibility of a credible outcome.

"Negotiators and observers have been telling us that New Zealand is taking an exceptionally irresponsible position in the talks", says Rachel Dobric of the New Zealand Youth Delegation.

And we've already won a silver fossil of the day as a result:
The 2nd place Fossil goes to New Zealand for proposing the most Flexible Mechanism imaginable with no oversight or review. Bring on the wild west. They want to be able to use any market mechanisms they wish with absolutely no oversight or international review! There would be no way to ensure that the units from one mechanism have not been sold two or three times to another such mechanism. This would likely unleash a wild west carbon market with double or triple counting of offsets and a likely increase of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
These are a perfect example of how under National we have transformed from a climate change leader into a villain, from a country trying to do something about the problem to a country actively disrupting negotiations in an effort to prevent there from being a solution. But its a dangerous path to take. As a small country, we depend on our international reputation and our mana. And National is systematically trashing both in an effort to protect the unsustainable profits of its farmers and cronies.

Protecting New Zealand's Rivers

Water and water quality is a hot topic at the moment, and the New Zealand Conservation Authority (a statutory body which exists to provide independent advice to the Minister on conservation issues) has stepped up with an issues paper on Protecting New Zealand's Rivers. In it they survey the current legal regime for freshwater protection, find it inadequate, and make a number of recommendations, including:

  • a national inventory of rivers, with the aim of establishing a "representative network" of protected waterways;
  • river protection being vested in a single government agency;
  • better use of existing mechanisms to protect rivers;
  • stronger, longer-lasting Water Conservation Orders, revocable only by Parliament;
  • bringing Canterbury back under the WCO regime;
  • extending ECan's moratorium power to other regional councils;
  • management of crown-owned riverbeds to protect conservation values.
This is a direct challenge to the government's dirty dairying agenda. As such, I expect it to be ignored (that is if they don't try and disestablish NZCA for doing its job too vigorously). But these ideas are not going to go away, and are likely to be a significant influence on the water policy of opposition parties. I expect the Greens are already pillaging the report for a Member's Bill or two...

One of these things is not like the others

Occupy London
That's from a list of terrorist threats to the City of London business community, issued by the City of London Police this week (photo here). I know UK police forces have a long and dirty history of equating peaceful protest with terrorism and armed rebellion, but this really takes the cake. Two of these groups blow stuff up and kill people. The other... pitches tents and refuses to move to protest inequality. Yeah, a lot of similarity there.

But then, is it really that surprising? The City of London Police work for the City of London Corporation, which (thanks to its electoral rules which allow business votes to outnumber actual people three to one) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the banks. Its explicit purpose is "supporting and promoting 'The City' as the world leader in international finance and business services". Occupy London challenges that purpose, that inequality, that privileging of wealth over real people. No wonder they want to crush it.

A world leader in inequality

Congratulations! New Zealand is again a world leader! But not in anything we want to be. Our gap between rich and poor widened more than in any other developed country in the past twenty years:

Figures from the "Divided We Stand" think-tank [actually, the OECE - I/S] show the income of the richest 10 per cent of Kiwis is now more than 10 times that of the poorest 10 per cent.

This is up from a ratio of around six-to-one in the 1980s and higher than the average income gap in developed nations of nine-to-one.

Using an inequality index called the Gini coefficient, where zero means everybody has the same income and 1 means the richest person has all the income, New Zealand rated 0.33.

That was up six percentage points from 1985, when it measured 0.27. The only other OECD country to make such a jump was Sweden, up to a much lower 0.26.

That runaway growth in inequality was only just beginning to stop in 2008, thanks to increased transfers from Working For Families. But with the current government handing out whopping tax cuts to the rich, while shrinking WFF though inflation, its likely to be on the rise again. Conveniently, they've cancelled the Social Report, so we won't be getting an annual reminder of the toxic effects of their policies.

Meanwhile the OECD repeats the old lie:

The main driver behind rising income gaps has been greater inequality in wages and salaries, as the high-skilled have benefitted more from technological progress than the low-skilled.
But as Paul Krugman has shown, that's not the case. The income share in the US of the 81st to 99th percentiles - the top 20% minus the top 1% - has remained stagnant. The inequality is driven by the rise in incomes of the top 1%. And its the same story here (though to a lesser degree). This isn't about increased benefits to university graduates (especially given the devaluing of tertiary education in the employment market) - its about the gang of oligarchs at the top making out like bandits at the expense of the rest of us.

A decent government would make it their mission to close this gap, to restore the social contract, with redistributive taxation and wealth taxes. But we don't have a decent government, we have National - led by a man who is part of the problem and wants to continue upwards redistribution for as long as he and his cronies can get away with it.


John Key's response to introducing charter schools despite never having campaigned on them? "That's MMP for you, isn't it?"

No, its not MMP. MMP would be if ACT had actually mentioned the idea in their manifesto, campaigned on it, and extracted them in exchange for confidence and supply. They didn't do that (and neither did National). So instead we have policy from nowhere, sprung on the electorate by surprise, and therefore lacking any pretence of a democratic mandate.

Instead, this is FPP all over again. In 1990, National pulled a larger version of this stunt, campaigning on a "decent society" and giving us Ruth Richardson instead. And that single act of political deceit isn't just why an entire generation of voters regard all politicians as lying scumbags - its also why MMP won. The electorate expects honesty. Clearly, National hasn't learned that lesson yet (or just finds it inconveniently career-limiting), and so we'll have to politically castrate them again until it sinks in.

(As for Key trying to blame MMP, can anyone say "sore loser"? Or is he setting himself up for another broken promise, a second referendum whether we voted for one or not?)

Monday, December 05, 2011

The deals

A bit over a week after the election, and National has signed its confidence and supply agreements with United Future and ACT. We don't have a government yet - that will have to wait for the final results - but we've certainly got the core of one. So what have they agreed to?

The United Future deal [PDF] is fairly moderate. Peter Dunne agrees to roll over and do whatever National tells him to - including further abuse urgency if Gerry Brownlee so desires - and in exchange he gets a Minister's salary. And that's about it - because there's certainly no substantive policy in there. Oh, there's a pile of kibble - the Game Animal Council, reinstatement (but not passage) of income splitting, an end to helihunting - but its either all minor (as in those examples), or stuff National wanted to do anyway (e.g. not selling KiwiBank or Radio New Zealand, and limiting sale to 49%). Dunne is crowing very loudly about this indeed, with three seperate press releases - but this is just compensation behaviour. OTOH, its not as if Dunne has voters to deliver to, so I'm wondering why he's bothering to make the noise.

ACT's agreement [PDF], OTOH, is of a decidedly different and more threatening nature. In exchange for exactly as many votes as Peter Dunne, ACT (well, really John Banks) gets not only a Minister's salary and perks, but also to inflict all manner of madness upon the rest of us. Charter schools (state funded, but not state-regulated, and free to teach any old quackery), legislated spending limits, a further gutting of the RMA, the total privatisation of ACC's work account (saving the new providers from the risk of being outcompeted by ACC), and the worst aspects of welfare "reform". Given the wildly different outcomes from identical bargaining positions, its pretty obvious that National is using ACT as cover to do to us exactly what it wanted to do anyway. The question is whether the media will go along with that story, or sheet the blame for these policies home where it belongs: to National.