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Friday, May 18, 2007

What's good in the budget

Having criticised the Budget yesterday for failing to deliver to the poorest New Zealanders (you know, people who actually need the help - unlike the wealthy foreign beneficiaries of the business tax cuts), I think I should point out that there are things I am pleased about. The first, obviously, is the increase in foreign aid. I've blogged about this already, here, but its still worth mentioning again. The government is finally moving towards meeting its commitments, and hopefully the massive show of support for making poverty history will encourage them to move further in the future

Secondly, there's the changes to KiwiSaver. When this was first announced back in 2005, I called it "a solid, social democratic programme", and yesterday's changes make it even more so. The matching of contributions by the government will encourage people to participate while being aimed squarely at the poor (the maximum level is reached at $12.50 an hour - only slightly higher than where the government wants the minimum wage to be in a year - so wealthier New Zealanders don't benefit disproportionately), while the requirement for employer contributions is a solid redistributive measure. Sure, it will have some effect on wage bargaining, but it shouldn't be a large one - particularly as some of it will be offset by tax credits (and in any case, 4% over four years isn't much of a "wage rise").

Finally, there's the new regional fuel tax. Quite apart from making it clear that Aucklanders can pay for their own bloody roads (and giving them the tool to do it), to the extent that raising the price of petrol will discourage vehicle use and encourage vehicle efficiency it will also have an important secondary benefit in fighting climate change. The opposition (and more importantly, the government's support parties) haven't twigged yet, but we've just effectively gotten ourselves a carbon tax, by stealth, at up to triple the rate of the original proposal (the 2002 carbon tax of $15/ton was expected to add 3c/litre to the cost of petrol. This can go up to 10c/litre, or around $50/ton). Add in the cap on roading spending (and therefore push to spend on public transport), and we have some level of direct revenue recycling as well. Sure, it's quick and dirty, and doesn't make the link explicit, but it will work - and that's what's important.

Fiji: a war on freedom of speech

Fiji's military regime has detained and allegedly beaten another suspected blogger, and the military now seems to regard itself as involved in a "war" against its critics. Meanwhile, today's Fiji Times editorial says it all with their comment that "a government comfortable with its behaviour would have been seen the criticism as a nuisance to be ignored". But its been clear for a while that the regime isn't comfortable with its behaviour - or rather, that it knows that there are an awful lot of Fijians who aren't. Their solution - detention and beatings - seems likely to exacerbate that problem rather than solve it.

Fiji: Blocking out democracy

Fiji's international telecommunications gateway FINTEL has confirmed that it is advising the government on how to block access to pro-democracy blogs. Their first effort on Monday apparently blocked Google, and was ended after five minutes after complaints from ISPs that the internet was unusable. Now they seem to be working on more sophisticated blocking. The regime has however succeeded in having Google temporarily take down and gut the Resist Frank's Coup blog - but it has simply moved to typepad. Meanwhile there is now a blog dedicated to outing the soldiers responsible for the two murders conducted so far by the military. Here's hoping that one doesn't need any more posts...

A group of New Zealand bloggers are getting together to offer guest posting and hosting to Fiji's Freedom bloggers in an effort to evade any blocks. In the meantime Fijians wanting to exercise their freedom to read whatever they want are advised to download the Torpark secure browser.

Hell freezes over

The Kerikeri National Trust Bill has been reported back from Select Committee. The bill was sent to committee in the dark days of 1995, and has languished there ever since. According to the report [PDF], while there was support for the bill's intention, it was fatally flawed and has now been supplanted by a regional plan for the area. The committee therefore unanimously recommended that it not proceed. The bill will now go back to the House, where hopefully it will be voluntarily withdrawn by John Carter.

For those who are wondering, the title of "oldest bill before the House" will now pass to the Conservation (Protection of Trout as a Non-commercial Species) Amendment Bill, which has been waiting for its second reading since 1998.

Another NeoCon crony out

Paul Wolfowitz has quit as President of the World Bank. I guess he finally got the message that it was either that or be fired for violating the bank's rules in awarding a pay rise to his partner.

Brown anointed

Gordon Brown will be elected unopposed as leader of the UK Labour Party, after his only rival failed to secure enough nominations. And yet Tony Blair will still remain Prime Minister for another six weeks to allow time for a leadership election which will now not be happening.

The Independent is right on this: Blair should go now. The delay is nothing more than a self-indulgent ego-trip - as witnessed by today's mutual arse-licking session with George Bush in which they praised each other for their role in murderering 655,000 Iraqis and bringing that country to the brink of collapse (though in a rare show of political awareness, Bush admitted that he "could be" responsible for Blair's exit. Y'think?)

Government should not be a vehicle for the ego of one man. Blair should resign immediately and allow his country to move on. And then, maybe, he can face the justice he so richly deserves.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Budget Day

In case anyone had missed it, today is Budget Day. In the Herald, the Child Poverty Action Group's Susan St John presents an alternative budget, in which she advocates a capital gains tax on housing (with a large exemption for people's homes), shifting tax brackets to compensate for inflation since 2000, greater funding for low decile schools and improved access to medical care for children, eliminating the discriminatory "in-work" payment from Working For Families in favour of a universal boost to the Family Tax Credit, and a significant boost to benefit-clawback income thresholds. It's the sort of Budget a progressive, left-wing, social democratic party like Labour should be delivering - but we're not getting it. Instead, we're getting business tax cuts, which will benefit only the rich, foreign owners of our economy.

Labour's departure from its roots and its capture by the rich couldn't be any clearer.

(Actually, I expect to be moderately pleased by much of the Budget. Boosting KiwiSaver and foreign aid and electrifying the Auckland rail network are all good policies. But there's a widening gap between what we elect Labour governments to do - you know, helping the poor - and what they deliver. While Labour would no doubt blame this on its coalition partners, its worth noting that some of the above policies (for example better access to health care and the inflation indexing of tax brackets) are explicitly advocated by those parties. With the exception of the capital gains tax, I can't actually see either of them objecting to such a package).

Says it all

The Herald: MP resigns over smacking bill, then misses vote.

John Armstrong is also fairly disparaging on Copeland's behaviour or the chances of his revivied Christian vehicle, saying that he was early for his own execution and on a one-way path to political oblivion.

Perhaps he'll surprise us. Perhaps there is a large theocrat vote lurking under the surface out there, waiting to bound out of their churches and carry Copeland over the 5% threshhold so he can implement God's Plan for New Zealand. But I doubt it.

Salmond takes the reins

SNP leader Alex Salmond has been elected First Minister in Scotland. He will lead a minority SNP - Green coalition, though is likely to have support on most issues from the Lib Dems. Unfortunately, this won't include independence - the Lib Dem's chief point of difference is support for the Union - but the government benches are a bully pulpit, and Salmond should be able to use them effectively to push for his cause (primarily by picking fights with Westminister, which will at least be entertaining).

This is Tony Blair's domestic legacy: losing on the left on Labour's safest ground. And if Brown continues down the same path as Blair, he is unlikely to do any better.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Easter trading defeated

57 votes in favour, 64 votes against. I'm sure there'll be another bill (though under Standing Orders it will have to wait a year), and maybe they'll convince more people next time if they address the holidays issue.

Correction: Standing Orders only bar substantially bills within the same calendar year - so there could be a new Easter trading bill in the ballot in January.

113 - 78

Sue Bradford's Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act has passed its third reading, 113 - 78.

Despite, resigning from United Future in protest at the bill, Gordon Copeland didn't vote voted two hours late.

The end of Section 59

Today is a Member's Day, and Sue Bradford's Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill is up for its third reading. Following last fortnight's stunning "compromise" (which was actually a complete surrender to Bradford's position), the bill is expected to pass by a huge margin, 116 - 5, with only ACT, Taito Phillip Field, and United Future's two hardline Christian MPs voting against. For those who want to listen in, debate will start sometime between 16:30 and 17:00, and depending on how many speakers there are, we could conceivably have a vote in in time for the six o'clock news (and if not, it'll be at eight, half an hour after the dinner break).

Meanwhile, Steve Chadwick's Shop Trading Hours Act Repeal (Easter Trading) Amendment Bill will also almost certainly come up for a vote. This passed its first reading by a wide margin, 80 - 38 - but so did Jacqui Dean's bill, which lost its Second Reading two weeks ago. A lot of MPs changed their mind between the first and second readings, but its unclear whether it was becuase they had come out in opposition to Easter trading, or because they opposed the form proposed in Dean's bill (for example, the lack of protection for workers). I don't want to risk guessing whether it will pass or fail (entrail readers may wish to start comparing votes in the Conscience Votes Database and see if they can draw a conclusion), but if it passes, I hope the government will move swiftly to ensure that Easter Sunday is listed as a public holiday to ensure it is on a par with other holidays.

Bump & update: It looks like the vote may just squeeze in before the news.

A long time coming

The Speaker has announced that Parliament will be trialling simultaneous interpretation in the House. This has been a long time coming. It's been twenty years since te reo was acknowledged as an official language; and eight years since the House took the first fumbling steps towards regularising its use by providing an interpreter (previously members had to provide their own translations). For a country which supposedly takes pride in Maori culture and treats Maori as full and equal citizens, that's far too long.

Simultaneous translation will finally allow te reo to be used to its fullest in parliamentary debates, without speaker's having to sacrifice half their time to translation (one of the biggest problems with the current system). It will also be a powerful statement of the status of the Maori language in New Zealand - and through them, of Maori. Given the token cost - $132,000 a year, pocket change to the government - you wonder why they didn't do it years ago.

Toys overboard!

Gordon Copeland is throwing a sulk over the impending passage of Sue Bradford's Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill and is quitting United Future to form his own party with former MP (and fellow Christian extremist) Larry Baldock. While this obviously affects the government's majority in the House, the abstention of the Greens assures them of confidence and supply (59 votes out of 115), and this will be tested in the next few days following the Budget debate. However the loss of Copeland's vote spells even more problems for the government's legislative program. On the positive side, it means they are going to have to rely on the Greens and Maori Party more often to get legislation passed - which will give them greater power to demand concessions and stall bad bills such as the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Bill.

The bigger picture in all of this is the breakup of United Future. This was originally a conglomeration of Peter Dunne's United New Zealand (a centrist, liberal party) and Future New Zealand (the rump of the 1996 Christian Democrats), which subsequently turned into a takeover. Now the Christians are walking, hopefully Dunne will be able to return to his centrist, secular roots. Though given past polling, he'll almost certainly be doing it all by himself again. As for the "new" Future New Zealand vehicle, it'll likely follow in the footsteps of other such groupings and quietly disappear thanks to the undemocratic threshhold.

Finally, there's a lesson in this for our politicians: you can't trust Christian parties to deliver the votes they have promised - they will flake and betray you. Hopefully this will introduce a note of caution into any future negotiations with such groupings.

A New Zealand innocence project

The Innocence Project is a US organisation dedicated to exonerating those wrongfully convicted by the US criminal justice system. They do good work - 200 people have been freed from prison after being conclusively proven innocent by DNA testing, many of them from death row. Given the number of wrongful convictions we've seen in the New Zealand justice system, I've been wondering why we don't have such an organisation here. Now, thanks to a group of researchers at Victoria and otago universities, we do.


Below is my submission on the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Bill. It's a bit of a monster - my longest submission yet - but it represents two years of research and blogging. Hopefully it won't be a wasted effort.

  1. I support a conviction-based forfeiture regime of the sort implemented by the Proceeds of Crime Act 1991. Seizing the proceeds and instruments of crime from those proved beyond a reasonable doubt to have engaged in serious criminal activity seems entirely justifiable. But I oppose the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Bill for the following reasons:
  2. The bill deliberately breaks down the barriers between civil and criminal penalties, and constitutes an attempt to punish suspected criminals without the Crown having to face the burden of a criminal trial or prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
  3. The regime proposed – a lower standard of evidence and a reverse onus of proof – violates the minimum standards of criminal procedure affirmed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and in various international human rights instruments to which New Zealand is a party. This leads to a substantial risk of injustice, which will see innocent people lose their life savings based on nothing more than the suspicion of police that they are criminals.
  4. The bill would also result in the imposition of lesser criminal penalties on the rich than the poor - a basic violation of the right to equality under the law.
  5. Finally, I oppose the suggestion by some that revenue from assets seized under the bill flow directly to the police. Overseas this has led to police corruption and significant abuses of power, including torture and murder.

    Criminal punishment

  6. The regime proposed by the bill is clearly aimed at punishing suspected criminals without the burden of a criminal trial or proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
  7. The claim that this is not a criminal punishment, but a civil one is a legal fiction. Statements from politicians make it very clear that the asset forfeiture regime is intended to punish criminals, particularly gangs. Ministry of Justice briefing papers from the policy development process refer to it explicitly as a means of “penalising criminal conduct”. And the bill itself recognises that it is a criminal penalty, by requiring judges to take forfeited assets into consideration in sentencing decisions. Such a balancing process would not be required if this was purely a civil proceeding with nothing to do with criminal law.
  8. More generally, the loss of assets is a penalty, and is used as such by the criminal justice system (e.g. fines). This penalty will be applied on the basis of suspected serious criminal behaviour, and the coercive power of the state will be used to impose it. Those refusing to cooperate with the regime will face criminal sanction. Those subject to the regime will be left in no doubt about what is going on: an attempt to punish criminal behaviour.
  9. This attempt to impose criminal penalties without the safeguards and evidentiary burden of criminal law is counter to the deepest values of our justice system, and violates the minimum standards of criminal procedure affirmed in s25 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and of Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  10. Penalties for criminal behaviour should only be imposed if the Crown can overcome the basic safeguards of a fair trial: innocent until proven guilty, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. If the crown can not convict someone under these rules, then it has no business punishing them.

    Ahmed Zaoui standards of evidence

  11. The proposed standards of evidence in the bill – asset restraint on “reasonable grounds to believe”, forfeiture on “the balance of probabilities”, and a reverse burden of proof – undermine basic procedural safeguards and will lead to a significant risk of injustice. These are the sorts of rules applied to Ahmed Zaoui, and have no place in the justice system of a civilised country which supposedly respects human rights.
  12. As noted above, the use of a civil standard of proof (the “balance of probabilities”) is entirely unsuitable to a criminal punishment. For the state to punish for criminal behaviour, it should be required to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
  13. The requirement for those whose assets are subject to a restraining order to prove they were lawfully acquired essentially amounts to a demand that they prove themselves innocent of any crime – a violation of the fundamental principle that people are innocent until proven guilty affirmed in s25 (c) of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.
  14. The ability to restrain assets on nothing more than “reasonable grounds to believe” that they are the proceeds of crime, combined with the automatic forfeiture of assets if restraint is not challenged raises the spectre of those who can not afford it (e.g. being ineligible for legal aid while also too poor to afford a lawyer – a not uncommon situation) losing substantial sums of money based on nothing more than the suspicions of police.
  15. Procedural safeguards and criminal standards of evidence are no doubt inconvenient to the Crown, but they serve a vital purpose: preventing miscarriages of justice. Undermining those safeguards and weakening those standards will significantly increase the risk of injustices occurring. This fact is explicitly recognised by the Ministry of Justice in its policy development documents:
    If a civil standard is applied (whether under the “more likely than not” test or the Briginshaw test), this inevitably allows for the possibility that a substantial number of mistakes will be made; those mistakes are neither identified nor publicised precisely because the application of a lower standard justifies the decision.

    (Ministry of Justice, briefing paper on “Proceeds of Crime”, 16 April 2004, p. 4).

  16. This higher risk of injustice will see innocent people at some stage lose their homes and livelihoods, and possibly even their lives – people commit suicide over less. We have already had a disturbing number of innocent people convicted of crimes in New Zealand due to police fixating on them and building a case around the suspect rather than the evidence (Arthur Allen Thomas and David Dougherty spring to mind). Lower standards of evidence and a reversed burden of proof will make it even easier.
  17. The ability to pursue seizure proceedings independently of or in parallel with criminal proceedings violates the s26 (2) BORA bar on double jeopardy. As argued above, this is a criminal punishment; double jeopardy should apply. As it stands, the crown could even begin seizure proceedings against someone acquitted of a crime after their trial – making a mockery of the entire criminal process.

    Unequal sentences

  18. If the arguments of the government that asset seizure is not a criminal punishment are accepted, then the changes to the Sentencing Act 2002 requiring sentencing judges to take asset forfeitures into account will see richer criminals effectively buying their way out of jail by surrendering assets.
  19. This fear is borne out by the US experience. In Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser reports that in some cases, a defendant's willingness to hand over assets is more important in determining their sentence than their degree of actual guilt; in one case, “a major cocaine dealer with a fleet of Learjets” served less than four years in jail - despite being caught with twenty tons of cocaine (p. 61).
  20. This dependence of sentencing upon wealth violates the basic principle of equality under the law affirmed in Article 14 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

    Revenue should not go to the police

  21. Finally, it has been suggested that the bill be amended to allow seized assets or the resulting revenue from their sale to flow directly to the police. I oppose such an amendment.
  22. Such an amendment would create a dangerous incentive for police to pursue cases aimed primarily at asset seizures rather than criminal convictions in order to meet budgetary targets. It could also lead to police corruption.
  23. Again, this has been the US experience. Two examples from Schlosser’s Reefer Madness (p. 62).
    In California, thirty-one state and federal agents raided Donald P. Scott's 200-acre ranch on the pretext that marijuana was growing there. Scott was inadvertently killed by a deputy sheriff. No evidence of marijuana cultivation was discovered, and a subsequent investigation by the Ventura County's District Attorney's Office found that the drug agents had been motivated partly by a desire to seize the $5 million ranch. They had obtained an appraisal of the property weeks before the raid.

    In New Jersey, Nicholas L. Bissell, Jr., a local prosecutor known as the Forfeiture King, helped an associate buy land seized in a marijuana case for a small fraction of its market value.

  24. The potential for this sort of corrupt behaviour and seizure-driven case should rule out any return to the police of revenue.
  25. If such a return of revenue is considered desirable, it is vitally important that individual police officers not be able to benefit from seizures, either directly or through the payment of performance bonuses. This would create direct financial incentives to frame people, or for criminal behaviour. Again, this is borne out by the US experience. In 2004 in Tennessee, Lester Eugene Siler was tortured by a group of police officers in an effort to get him to sign a consent-to-search form which would in turn have allowed them to seize his assets. He was beaten, waterboarded, and suffered electric shocks to his genitals (William Norman Grigg "Because They Can: The Logic of the Torture State"; see also Siler's Wikipedia entry). Clearly, the ability to directly benefit had created incentives for the officers involved. We should avoid creating such incentives for the New Zealand police.
  26. For these reasons, I ask that the Select Committee recommend that the bill not proceed.
  27. I do not wish to make an oral submission to the Select Committee

Fiji: the waiting

Fiji's military regime claims to have identified 20 people responsible for pro-democracy blogs, and are threatening to "question" them. Judging from their previous actions, this means detaining and beating them - or worse.

Intelligentsiya is taking it pretty well - but its not good news at all. We just have to hope they have the wrong people (not that that's really good either) - or no-one at all.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A green light for Project Westwind

Meridian Energy's planned Makara windfarm, Project Westwind, has received the green light from the Environment Court. The project has been trimmed by four turbines, to 198 MW, but it will be able to go ahead. So, once again despite the complaints the RMA proves to be no barrier to sensible renewable energy projects - the emphasis placed on them in the Act seems fairly decisive.

Last-minute submissions

Life has crept up on me again, so I'll be spending the rest of the afternoon writing my submission on the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Bill in time to get it in the post by this evening. Two years of blogging to be distilled down to two pages in two hours, without any bad language (and there are parts of the government's argument which just cry out for an air-clearing cry of "bullshit!"), and without getting myself so angry that I can no longer write but instead end up walking around swearing randomly at things for half an hour. That'll be fun...

Update: I should also add that if anyone feels strongly about the Terrorism Suppression Amendment Bill, then they should start writing now, as submissions are due on Friday.

Parliament and the OIA

Scoop has an interesting speech by Margaret Wilson on "Parliament And Official Information", given at the Information Law Conference marking 25 years of the Official Information Act (something I'd have gone to if anybody told me about it). The short version: she's in favour of extending the OIA to cover Parliament, provided there are safeguards to protect party political information and the communications of members with their constituents (which seems appropriate). Something else for the government to use to pad the Order Paper, perhaps?

120,000 reasons to increase aid

Yesterday the government announced a welcome increase in our foreign aid budget, laying out a pathway to increase it to 0.35% of GDP by 2010. However, it still has a long way to go if it is to meet its commitment to boost it to 0.7% by 2015. Today, it received 120,000 reasons to push towards that target, in the form of a petition from the New Zealand branch of the Make Poverty History campaign. That's a massive petition for New Zealand, and one that makes it clear that we expect our government to do better in this area. Hopefully they'll take the message to heart, rather than ignoring it.

The calm before the Budget

Thursday is Budget Day, so the news today is thin, mostly tied up with speculation on what sort of savings incentives Cullen will deliver and the pepetual wailing and gnashing of teeth over the absence of tax cuts for the rich (you'd think that after seven and a half years, our political journalists would have twigged to this being something that social democratic governments generally aren't in favour of - but apparently not). Well, that and Ian Wishart's latest bucket of sewage, which everyone to their credit is doing their best to avoid stepping in.

Thanks to Michael Cullen's good work over the last seven years, the Budget is likely to show OBERAC surpluses stretching out as far as the eye can see. This is likely to provoke the usual demands from the right for that money to be "returned to the hard working taxpayer" in the form of tax cuts. Writing in The Listener, Brian Easton is rather acerbic about such demands:

This savings-before-investment figure is an accounting notion, frequently referred to as “The Budget Surplus”, even though almost all of it has been spent.

Treating the amount as available for tax cuts (or for more government spending) confuses an accounting aggregate with an economic reality. It was a monetarist confusion that seemed to lead the National Party during the 2005 election to propose using this “surplus” for income tax cuts. Had the policy been implemented, the cuts would have fed into household consumption, reduced national saving, and so pushed the exchange rate up further, screwing even more exporters and ruining the economy even further.

Fortunately, wiser – or at least more economically informed – heads seem to have since prevailed in National.

But even with a more responsible approach, the large apparent Budget “surplus” (before investment and such spending) is politically unstable: there will always be those who, from economic ignorance or political opportunism, argue that this money – which we haven’t got – should be given away in tax cuts. The danger is that enough of the public may believe the ill-informed to drive an irresponsible economic policy – as almost happened in 2005.

Savings incentives are a political way aroud this, a way of cutting taxes without really cutting taxes, defusing some of the political demand without causing inflation (and while directing it towards social democratic aims to boot). But they don't deal with the underlying problem: that there are people out there too thick to realise that the "budget surplus" isn't, a view encouraged by people who think that it is appropriate to run the country in the same way that National's cronies ran Tranz Rail. The only way of dealing with this is to make it clear what the "surplus" is spent on - roads, schools, hospitals, and pensions - and that the sort of asset-stripping tax cuts promoted by the extreme right for their own benefit would come at the expense of the social and physical infrastructure the vast majority of New Zealanders depend on to live.

Fiji: another beating

On Friday, the Fijian military detained businessman Ulaiasi Taoi. They took his clothes, threw him in a cell, and kicked the shit out of him. Why? Because he was suspected of being a blogger who said nasty things about the regime. Because Cthulhu forbid that people might be allowed to criticise the government, judge its actions, or find them wanting. Why, then there might be... democracy!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Increasing Aid

Foreign Minister Winston Peters has announced a major increase in aid spending - $70 million this year, and $250 million over the next four years. This will mean that Labour will meet its election pledge to increase aid to 0.35% of GDP by 2010 - the highest level in thirty years, though still not a touch on the 0.52% reached under the Kirk government. Still, it is an extremely welcome increase, and one the government can be proud of.

Next step: getting them to lay out a pathway to meet their commitment under the Millenium Development Goals to increase aid to 0.7% of GDP by 2015.

Against RMA call-ins

Ever since Project Aqua, energy companies have been arguing that renewable energy projects be called in under the RMA, arguing that the national importance of their profits more electricity generation should override petty local concerns about the environment or quality of life. There's another example of this today, with Meridian Energy complaining that the government has refused to call in its 630 MW Central Otago windfarm, Project Hayes.

Meridian's "justification" is that the Central Otago District Council is "dragging its feet" over hearing the application, but this simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Meridian applied for consent in November 2006, and the CODC is currently holding hearings, which are expected to last a couple more weeks. Six months to notify, submit, and process submissions is not onerous or unusual, and certainly should not be unexpected - it's just the basic length of time the process takes for a major project. Instead, Meridian's demands for a call-in seem to be driven more by the fact that their project has significant local opposition and has received an adverse report from the CODC's planning consultant panning its visual impact and recommending that it not proceed. So, rather than fight for their project on its merits, they're forum shopping instead. The Minister is right to refuse this request. But are they right to be so reluctant to use their call-in powers?

IMHO, yes. The RMA lays out a process by which local communities can assess the environmental impacts of a project against local and national priorities, with the Environment Court as a backstop to ensure that the process is fair. We should no more short-circuit this process by sending applications directly to the Environment Court or Minister's desk than we should short-circuit the process of criminal trials by sending cases direct to the Court of Appeal. It's not their function, and it removes an important safeguard from the system (it also raises significant barriers to public participation in the process, which was the very point of the RMA, and precisely why the anti-democratic right are so in favour of it). If central government is concerned that local bodies are not paying sufficient attention to issues they consider important, then the Act already lays out a process by which they can make them do so, in the form of National Policy Statements. Alternatively, they can amend the Act to add to the list of matters which must be considered (as they have already done over climate change and renewable energy).

More generally, use of the call-in mechanism, even in the form of choosing which projects get "fast-tracked" to the Environment Court, raises the spectre of favouritism and corruption. This is fine to a generation of energy company executives raised on the Clyde Dam and the National Development Act, but it ought to be anathema to the rest of us. I take it as a bedrock principle that projects should be assessed on their merits, not on who has (or can buy) the ear of the Minister. The law should do likewise.

Something to go to in Wellington

Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) and VUW's Institute of Policy Studies are holding a one-day symposium next month on The Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns [PDF]. Speakers include Dr paul Harris (former head of the Electoral Commission), Dr Helen Catt (current head of the Electoral Commission), Raymond Miller, Andrew Geddis and Steven Price, as well as a couple of MPs and a slew of party presidents. Sounds like its well worth going to.

When: Friday, 15 June, 9:00 - 16:00
Where: Council chamber, Hunter Building, VUW, Wellington (the big old building at the top of the hill)
How much: Free!

(Hat tip: Coalition for Open Government)

Climate change: A fair contribution

National Party leader John Key made a major speech on the environment today, in which he committed his party to both the Kyoto Protocol and a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is a welcome shift in policy from National's dark days of climate change denialism, and a return to the party adopting a responsible attitude (as it seems to have also done on race). Last week, I compared National's chosen target with those of other nations and found it rather underwhelming - but having crunched some numbers, I've changed my mind.

"50% by 2050" doesn't look that impressive when compared to the much higher targets set by the UK (60%), EU (60 - 80%), California (80%) and Norway (100%). However, National justifies it by implicitly appealing to a per-capita comparison:

New Zealand’s emissions are significantly less per person than those of Australia, the United States and Canada. National believes the “50 by 50” target is New Zealand’s fair contribution to avoiding dangerous climate change, taking into account our already high level of renewable energy and the difficulty of reducing agricultural emissions.

I was a bit suspicious of this, so I did the numbers. And actually, they turn out pretty good:

California EU-15 United Kingdom New Zealand
1990 emissions (MTCO2-e) 373.4a 4,014.58b 750.64b 40.15b
2050 emissions (MTCO2-e) 74.68 1,605.83 300.26 20.08
2050 Population (millions) 54.778c 384.356d 69.162e 5.045f
Per capita emissions (TCO2-e / person) 1.36 4.18 4.34 3.98

(All emissions figures are net; I've linked to the sources for the curious).

So, "50% by 2050" is a fair contribution, at least by comparison with other nations. It's not exactly leading the world, but its certainly doing our bit. The challenge now for National is to flesh out this distant target with some intermediate targets and some firmer policies for meeting them. The challenge for the government is to beat it.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Fiji: shutting down the blogs

Since the December 5 coup, the Fijian blogosphere has exploded, with a network of "Fijian Freedom Bloggers" established to distribute information critical of the military regime. These blogs have broken several important stories deeply embarassing to those in power, and now the regime is trying to close them down. On Friday they detained a businessman on suspicion of being a blogger, and now they are pressuring FINTEL (Fiji's international telecommunications gateway) to block access to sites critical of the regime. So we may see a "little firewall of Fiji" to "protect" Fijians from harmful concepts like democracy, accountability, and human rights.

Of course, such firewalls may be circumvented. There's an escalating series of circumvention and privacy methods in the Reporters Without Borders Handbook for bloggers and cyber-dissidents [PDF]. The easiest method is to use a service like Anonymouse, Proxify or The Cloak to disguise the destination of your traffic. Such sites may also be blocked, but you can DIY by using a proxy server (lists here; IE configuration tutorial here). There are stronger and more secure methods as well for the seriously paranoid, but the basic ones ought to be enough to begin with.

Reality mirrors satire

As in "The Trial of Tony Blair", so in reality: Blair leaves office, and Labour goes up in the polls...

Generational and constitutional change in Samoa

Malietoa Tanumafili II, Samoa's o le Ao o le Malo (head of state) has died, aged 95. His death marks the passing of the generation which led Samoa to independence. But it also signifies an important change in the country's constitutional system. When Samoa became independent in 1962, the position of o le Ao o le Malo was shared between two paramount chiefs. Now that they are both gone, the position shifts to being elected by the Fono for a five-year term. While it is highly likely that it will continue to be elected from among the four paramount chiefs, that's not a legal requirement - so in a sense samoa has just become a republic (if they weren't already).

Saturday, May 12, 2007

New Fisk

Our need for beauty in the midst of war

What opposition to NCEA is about

Sexism. What else can you say when an exclusive boy's school principal withdraws from the system because it "tends to favour girls"? And it looks even worse when he explains himself:

Headmaster Graeme Yule said NCEA lent itself to the girls, who tended to be more diligent with the internal assessment aspects of NCEA.

Otherwise known as hard work and academic merit. Clearly we can't have an education system which rewards that!

Such anti-meritocratic attitudes aren't uncommon in elite educational institutions. Reading this reminded me of an article I read a while ago about the history of the US S.A.T, which mentioned in passing the use of aptitude tests to keep Jews out of Ivy League universities. The theory behind this was that Jewish students were "grinds", who excelled simply because they worked hard, as opposed to having the "innate ability" of, say, the scion of an inbred New England dynasty. The use of an aptitude test (which nowadays we would recognise as being significantly culturally biased) allowed the colleges to weed out the (mainly Jewish) students who were "achieving beyond their ability" in favour of the (mainly white) students who were "naturals" (as shown by their ability to achieve a gentleman's C). Unfortunately, it seems that this attitude is alive and well in the principal of Scots College.

Friday, May 11, 2007


Below is my submission on Supplementary Order Paper 106 to the Major Events Management Bill. It's been drafted in a bit of a hurry, but it will have to do.

  • I oppose Supplementary Order Paper No 106 to the Major Events Management Bill, and the proposed offence of pitch invasion for the following reasons:
  • The proposed offence is redundant. Police can already prosecute pitch invaders for disorderly behaviour under s4 (1) of the Summary Offences Act 1981, or for disturbing meetings (s37). Those throwing objects onto the playing surface in a manner likely to injure the players can be prosecuted for throwing stones under s34 of the same Act, or for assault.
  • The proposed penalties are excessive. Three months imprisonment is the same as handed out for disorderly behaviour leading to a substantial risk of violence (s3 Summary Offences Act), intimidation (s21), or wilful damage (s11). It is the same as that for discharging a firearm in a public place (s48 Arms Act 1983), or for presenting a firearm or restricted weapon at another person (s52). These are crimes involving actual violence or a serious threat of such to people or property. “Pitch invasion” simply is not on the same level.
  • The rationale for the proposed offence is to protect major events from disruption, and their sponsors from “ambush marketing”. Against the first point, existing law and the ability of event managers to control access to venues already provides sufficient protection; those disrupting events can be prosecuted, convicted, and barred from future events (as happened to streaker Lisa Lewis). Against the second, I do not believe that protecting the right of sponsors to exclusively brand an event justifies the proposed infringement of our civil liberties or the excessive penalties. If sponsors believe their investment in an event has been diluted by such tactics, they should pursue civil penalties, rather than having a special offence created for the purpose.
  • I do not wish to make an oral submission to the Select Committee.

Climate change: allocation

Now that the government has decided to go for emissions trading, the debate has turned to the most fraught past of the issue: allocation. This has bogged down past proposals for emissions trading for years in pointless debate as the government has tried to escape the fact that any allocation will annoy someone. I say "pointless" because from a policy point of view, it doesn't actually matter - what's important is the creation of a marginal price on emissions (which is done by the creation of a cap and permits), not who pays who. According to Coase's Theorem the market will all work it out anyway - so why the debate?

The answer is simple: money. While created by the government, emissions permits will be worth money - billions of dollars at expected carbon prices. The debate then is over who gets those billions of dollars: the government, or private industry. The sums involved mean the latter will squeal long and loud in an effort to get a free windfall, and to ensure that it flows preferentially to them rather than their competitors.

It ought to come as no surprise that I favour the government in this. New Zealand's emissions quota under the Kyoto Protocol is a public asset. It should not be given away for free, even by proxy. Instead, permits should be allocated by auction. Ideally I would like to see the revenue from sales recycled to fund other emissions reduction programs and compensate those adversely affected by climate change, but that's not strictly necessary. What's important is ensuring that polluters pay, rather than rewarding them with windfall profits. I'm not opposed to partial grandparenting where there is a significant risk of emissions leakage (as judged under similar criteria to the previous Negotiated Greenhouse Agreements programme), but this should be the exception, rather than the rule. The basic presumption should be that businesses pay the full cost of their pollution, rather than getting a sweetheart deal, and that the rent from establishing the system go to the government to be used for the public benefit, rather than into private pockets.

Some businesses will no doubt complain that being forced to pay the full cost of their activities will drive them to bankruptcy. My response to this is "the sooner the better" - because if the claim is accurate, then it is clear that they were never really profitable in the first place.

Timor-Leste elections

Despite the headlines, there hasn't actually been an official result in East Timor's presidential election. But with 90% of the votes counted, Prime Minister and Noble prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta is leading with 73% of the vote. It looks like Fretilin has received a real drubbing, and they may have serious trouble in the Parliamentary elections in June.

East Timor Journal isn't the only blogger covering the count BTW; Dili-gence managed to attach themselves to an election monitoring team, and has also been reporting on the results. It's a good example of bloggers playing at journalist, and one that should be encouraged. And if I wasn't so attached to election-night parties, I might consider doing it myself next time there's an election here.

A constitutional outrage

The Turkish Parliament has just passed a major constitutional reform package, allowing direct election of the president and shifting them from a single seven year term to a renewable five year one. These changes may be desirable, or they may not - it depends on what sort of constitutional framework the Turkish people want - but what's not desirable is the timing: just a few months before an election, itself forced by the government's inability to elect their own candidate as president. Going to the people in search of a new mandate and a larger majority is an appropriate and democratic response to this. But ramming through major constitutional changes at short notice is not. It smacks of an attempt to stack the deck, and is more reminiscent of the constitutional outrages practised in South America than in a supposedly European country.

Fortunately, the Turkish constitution has a few safeguards. One of these is the ability of the President to return legislation to Parliament for reconsideration, or to put it to referendum. Hopefully they'll do the latter. The shape of the Turkish constitution should be ultimately decided by the Turkish people - not by politicians maneuvering for electoral advantage.

Driving the market

Last year, the government announced that it would be imposing a biofuels sales obligation on New Zealand oil companies, requiring them to sell an escalating percentage of biofuels, starting at 0.25% next year and building up to 3.4% in 2012. The aim was to push the market in a greener direction. And it seems to be working. Argent Energy had already announced its interest in a tallow-biodiesel plant in Northland, and Solid Energy has just announced that it will be buying Canterbury Biodiesel and expanding it into producing biofuel from canola. Between them, these two companies will be able to meet 75% of New Zealand's 2012 target. With a number of other companies also working on biofuels (LanzaTech from flue waste gases, BioJoule from wood, AquaFlow from sewage, and Steve Tindall on corn ethanol) it looks like the targets will be met. The question in a couple of years time then will be how far and how fast they can be expanded.