National Library of New Zealand
Harvested by the National Library of New Zealand on: Oct 12 2008 at 6:01:01 GMT
Search boxes and external links may not function. Having trouble viewing this page? Click here
Close Minimize Help
Wayback Machine

It's 30 days until the election. Have you enrolled to vote?


Saturday, October 11, 2008



New Fisk

'Collateral damage' or targeted killing, the effect is much the same

Victoria decriminalises abortion

The Victoria Legislative Council has passed the Abortion Law Reform Bill unamended. So, it's a done deal, with only the formality of assent to go.

The bill decriminalises abortion, allows abortion on demand up to 24 weeks and where two doctors believe it is appropriate afterwards. It also imposes a duty on doctors to provide an effective referral if they have a conscientious objection to abortion themselves (to see why, read here; also remember that in rural Australia, there are very few doctors, which could lead to serious access problems if they decide to be jerks). It's a far more sensible framework than the one we have here, and hopefully we will adopt it as well. And by challenging the application of existing law in the courts, New Zealand's anti-abortionists may very well force us to do so.

Equality wins in Connecticut

The Connecticut Supreme Court has overturned a state ban on same-sex marriages, and ruled that gay couples must be allowed to marry:

In his majority opinion, Justice Richard N. Palmer wrote that the court found that the “segregation of heterosexual and homosexual couples into separate institutions constitutes a cognizable harm,” in light of “the history of pernicious discrimination faced by gay men and lesbians, and because the institution of marriage carries with it a status and significance that the newly created classification of civil unions does not embody.”

The court also found that “the state had failed to provide sufficient justification for excluding same-sex couples from the institution of marriage.”

As with the Massachusetts case, this is based on the state rather than the federal constitution, so it cannot be appealed to the federal courts. The only way it can be overturned is for Connecticut's bigots to amend the constitution - a difficult process which is unlikely to be successful.

The full ruling is here [PDF].

Friday, October 10, 2008



No Fraud

The Serious Fraud Office has cleared Winston Peters of fraud charges. He's crowing about it already, but contrary to his implication, the SFO didn't exactly say he was squeaky clean:

"We have found information showing that the laws relating to election returns may not have been complied with. Information shows that NZ First’s donations returns and the auditor’s reports on those returns for 2005 and 2007 appear to be inaccurate. The party’s election return for 2005 also appears to be incomplete."

Information had been passed onto investigations currently underway by the Electoral Commission and Police.

Violating electoral law is a serious business, and if there's any truth to the allegations around his 2007 return, he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But on fraud at least, he's innocent; the money went exactly where it was meant to go, and the only people deceived were the voters.

Victoria abortion reform update

Victoria's Abortion Law Reform Bill, which would decriminalise abortion and allow abortion on demand up to 24 weeks (and allow it later where doctors think it is appropriate), has passed its second reading in the Legislative Council, 23-17. Next, they have a committee stage, during which the fundies will propose a number of wrecking amendments (particularly around the 24-week limit and the "effective referral" clause). It will be interesting to see whether that majority is retained on all the amendments and the final bill, but things are looking good.

National's economic "plan"

Before the PREFU, National's economic policy was their standard package of tax cuts for the rich, gutting the RMA, and downsizing the public service. After the PREFU, their economic policy was tax cuts for the rich, gutting the RMA, and downsizing the public service - now packaged as an "Economic Management Plan". Its a perfect example of how the right isn't actually interested in reality, but rather has preconceived policies which it claims are the solution to every problem. Times are good? Cut taxes to "reward hard work", reduce "red tape", and seek "efficiencies" in the public service. Times are bad? Cut taxes to "stimulate the economy", remove "barriers to growth", and cut costs. Invaded by aliens? Cut taxes, reduce environmental protections, and sack bureaucrats. It's simply stimulus - response. Personally, I'd prefer politicians who actually thought about the problem in front of them, rather than looking for an excuse to do what they were going to do anyway.

Meanwhile, Labour has released a nice little video on why National's plan to fund its tax cuts by gutting KiwiSaver is fundamentally mistaken:

Basically, National's "plan" is a short-term "solution", which sacrifices our long-term growth potential so they can loot the state for the benefit of their rich mates. It's exactly the sort of Enron-thinking I'd expect from a party led by a Wall St gambler. And if they get to go through with it, we'll all be worse off in the long run.

Something to go to in Auckland

I've said before that elections are about choices - but what are we choosing between? The most obvious choice is between faces and personalities - who gets to occupy the Beehive. More important IMHO are choices between policies - between competing ideas of what to do about society's problems (and indeed, what is a problem). But underlying policy are values - liberty, equality, the environment, traditionalism - which colour and drive a politician or party's entire approach. So another thing we're choosing between is which values we want to drive policy for the next three years.

Which values are we choosing between this election? Conveniently, Dr Grant Duncan of Massey Albany is giving a lecture on exactly that topic on Tuesday night, looking at the values driving our political culture, and how they have evolved:

One of the key areas he will explore is the contemporary clash between our historic socialist ideals dating back to the 1930s versus market-led deregulation and individualism hatched in 1984 and prevalent today.

Other issues covered in the lecture reflecting the diverse ideas and dreams of 21st century New Zealand which he says “have abiding influences on the way we steer our society politically” include Maori self-determination, environmentalism and liberty, individualism and property.

New Zealanders’ “cosmopolitan aspirations” represent an area rife with philosophical contradictions. On one hand people seek a cohesive, independent society “through a jingoistic desire to identify with symbols of national culture,” and on the other, “we want to be recognised on the world stage, to enjoy the benefits of imported goods and the dismantling of protectionist policies,” he says.

Dr Duncan says he will not dwell on parties and their policies, political personalities and predicting winners in the lecture. Rather, he wants to emphasise that “New Zealanders do not share a single vision for a better future, but our disagreements are interesting and healthy in themselves.”

When: 19:00, Tuesday, October 14
Where: Neil Waters Lecture Theatres Building, Rm 200, Massey Albany, Albany Highway, Auckland
How much: Free. That whole "conscience and critic of society" thing, y'know?

10/10: Progress

Today, October 10, is the world day against the death penalty, the day we highlight the global struggle against capital punishment. So, how is that struggle going? Slowly, but it is making progress. Since the last world day against the death penalty, three countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes: the Cook Islands, Uzbekistan and Argentina. In addition, Russia, Latvia and Chile are working towards final abolition. Finally, and most significantly, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a global moratorium, and a second moratorium resolution is before the General Assembly this session.

On the bad news front, Liberia backslid, reintroducing the death penalty for armed robbery, terrorism and hijacking, despite having signed the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. No-one has been executed yet, and the President is likely to commute any capital sentence, but its not a good sign. But while its a setback, it is outweighed by progress elsewhere in the world; overall, we're still winning.

10/10: World Day Against the Death Penalty

Today, October 10, is the world day against the death penalty. New Zealand has abolished the death penalty, but 60 countries still retain it. Today is the day we work to change that.

This year the focus is on Asia. Out of 37 countries in Asia, only 9 have abolished the death penalty (3 more retain it only for military crimes, while 7 observe a practical moratorium). But those are mostly small countries. 95% of the population of Asia live in states which practice judicial murder, and 85 - 95% of the world's executions are carried out in Asia. Last year, that included at least 470 in China, 317 in Iran, 143 in Saudi Arabia and 135 in Pakistan. Because many of those countries refuse to publish statistics and carry out executions in secret, the true figures are almost certainly much higher.

The World Coalition is particularly targeting Japan, where prisoners are not informed of their executions until a few hours beforehand; Pakistan, where defendants do not even receive a fair trial before being sentenced to death, and may be executed for "crimes" such as blasphemy; Vietnam, which executes people for nonviolent offences such as smuggling, forgery and bribery; and Taiwan, India and South Korea, all of whom have moratoriums they are being urged to make permanent. Some of these are tiny steps. But they will help. You can sign the online petition demanding them here. Amnesty International New Zealand has a few other suggestions here.

Fiji: the judgement

The judgement in Qarase and Others v Bainimarama and Others is now online [PDF]. The short version:

  • The President can do whatever he likes in an emergency, and bugger the Constitution;
  • Whether there is or isn't an emergency is entirely up to the President;
  • These questions are completely unreviewable.

Which taken together, means that any group of thugs, uniformed or not, can create an emergency in their own minds from paranoid ravings about the threat of an Australian invasion (yes, seriously), overthrow the elected government, then hold a gun to the President's head and get him to ratify their actions and install them as effective government "to preserve civil peace". And they're not usurpers by doing so, because they can hide behind the beard of "legitimate Presidential rule".

I think that speaks for itself about the state of Fiji's courts - and its democracy.

Thursday, October 09, 2008



Redundancy rights

The government is looking seriously at legislating to set minimum rights to notice and redundancy payments when a business fails or downsizes. It's a good idea. While 80% of employees in collective agreements have redundancy protection, 80% of workers aren't collectivised - and only 20% of them have any entitlement to redundancy. So this would be a significant improvement in workers' rights. It could also significantly reduce the impact of the recession on ordinary people if enacted quickly enough.

There's an obvious question of why its taken Labour nine years to get round to this, but I'm just glad they're finally moving on it. The question is whether they'll get to implement it - because it sure as hell won't be happening under National.

The full report of the Public Advisory Group on restructuring and redundancy (and the accompanying cabinet paper) canbe found here.

The KiwiSaver cut

Yesterday, National funded a program of tax-cuts for the rich in an effort to buy their way to power. A key way of paying for this (though that's a misnomer, since they still plan to run enormous deficits for ten years, with no real improvement on the current path) is cutting the employer tax credit for KiwiSaver. That's a cut I agree with - its money employers should be paying, not the public. But National has gone beyond fiscal policy here and has also reduced entitlements under the scheme, capping the employer contribution at 2%, and effectively reducing it from a "4+4" scheme to a "2+2" one. This in turn has flow-on effects for the employee contribution, effectively halving the matching government contribution there as well.

The net effect of these changes is to make everyone in KiwiSaver substantially worse off under a National government. How much? Enough to more than cancel out National's tax cuts, even at the top end; for most people (meaning the 70% of us who earn less than $40,000 a year), the net loss after National's tax cuts is well over $20 a week, though receiving National's "independent earner rebate" can reduce it to as little as $10. At the top end, it just goes up and up and up. And this assumes that employers don't take their cue from National and rip the "employer" contribution right out of their workers' pay packets.

To the 800,000 members of KiwiSaver, the message is clear: don't vote National.

Fiji: judgement day

The Fiji Supreme High Court is currently delivering its ruling on the legality of the coup. The ruling has already been disrupted by a bomb threat. Its difficult to imagine the court ruling the court was legal (particularly given past rulings around the 2000 coup and the interim government set up in its wake), but ABC is apparently reporting the judges are expected to rule 2 - 1 in favour of the military.

I'll have more as it comes in.

Update: Bloody hell! They've ruled the coup was legal!

A ruling handed down by acting Chief Justice Anthony Gates – as head of a three judge panel including Justices Devendra Pathik and John Byrne – said they found that the President Ratu Josefa Iloilo’s actions during the period in question were lawful and valid.

Other actions the panel upheld as valid and lawful were the appointment of Dr Jona Senilagakali as caretaker prime minister and his submission that Parliament be dissolved; the President’s decision to rule directly by promulgation; the President’s power to promulgate laws and the decision to grant immunity to those behind or involved in the takeover.

I'm hoping to find a copy of the full judgement, but it is very difficult to square this with the explicit provisions of the Fijian Constitution that the President can only dismiss the Prime Minister if they have lost the confidence of Parliament. If they've wriggled around that, then what they've basically said is that Fiji's constitution means nothing...

Carnival of the liberals

The 75th Carnival of the Liberals is now up at Clashing Culture.

The Greens decide

The big question everyone asks minor parties around election time is "who will you go with"? It is in some ways a mistaken question, because it assumes support is total and exclusive - that a preference one way rules out cooperation with the other party should things not work out (a holdover from the FPP generation and oppositional politics) - but at the same time it is an important one. MMP means coalitions, and in order to assess the outcomes and cast our votes accordingly, voters need some information about where at least the parties' preferences lie.

Today, the Greens released their preference. Unlike other parties, they didn't say explicitly - that will come later. Instead, they released a list of policy criteria against which any future partner will be assessed. These include their four founding principles of environmental sustainability, social justice, peace and democracy, as well as policies on climate change, public transport, water quality, child poverty, the Treaty, and workers' rights. And based on this list, their preferred partner is clear: Labour. Labour's policies may not go far enough, but in all of these areas, they're lightyears ahead of National (who, just to remind everyone, are promising to weaken the ETS, gut the RMA, abolish the Maori seats, and repeal MMP - policies the Greens will never support). This doesn't rule out working with a National government on particular issues to improve legislation which advances Green aims. But it almost certainly rules out helping National into power. Which means if the Nats fall short, they've really only got the Maori Party to rely on.

Abortion reform progresses in Victoria

Victoria's Legislative Council has begun debating the Abortion Law Reform Bill. The bill (quick overview here) would decriminalise abortion, allowing abortion on demand up to 24 weeks, and where two doctors believe it is appropriate afterwards. This doesn't go as far as it should, but its an improvement, and a model that could be adopted to lever open access in new Zealand.

One of the most contentious aspects of the bill is a clause requiring medical practitioners with a conscientious objection to abortion to provide an effective referral to someone without such barriers to assisting their patients. The Catholic Church regards this as a violation of freedom of conscience, and are threatening to close their hospitals in Victoria if the bill passes. But based on the stories emerging about how these people use their freedom of conscience to victimise women and outright endanger their patients, that looks like a highly desirable option. For example, there's this horror story recounted by MLC Candy Broad during the debate yesterday [PDF, p. 32]:

A senior clinician in a public hospital in Victoria recounted to me his experience of providing advice to a woman in a very advanced stage of pregnancy, which showed very clearly on the information he had available that the pregnancy was incompatible with life and that the pregnancy had no earthly hope of proceeding to term. He had to commence the process of working through those issues with the woman and her partner and of arranging the necessary counselling for that couple to make a very difficult decision.

When that very senior clinician went back and reviewed all the information available about that case he realised the information he had available to him at that point had been available to another clinician much earlier in the woman’s pregnancy. That clinician, because of his moral position, had not informed the woman of the situation at that earlier stage.

Or there's this one, reported in The Age on Monday, from a senior doctor who has worked in a Catholic hospital:
He said one doctor withheld ultrasounds showing a foetal abnormality until it was too late for an abortion. The child was born and died a slow, unpleasant death, the doctor said.
Then there's the inspiring news that Victoria's Catholic hospitals are refusing to refer rape victims to rape crisis centres because they'll be able to get emergency contraception. These people are simply monsters, using their religion as an excuse to sadistically abuse women, endanger lives, sentence children to short "lives" of pain and suffering, and generally act like arseholes. And if this law drives them out of (this part of) the medical profession, then I think we're better off for it.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008



Another near miss

A New Zealand soldier has been injured by a bomb in Afghanistan. Fortunately, it was only a scratch - but people are trying to kill them now. And eventually, they'll succeed, and we'll be seeing kiwis coming home in body bags.

Is this worth it? No. Quite apart from the fact that there is no point continuing to fight a war you have already lost (and the west has already lost it, thanks as usual to America's heavy-handed attitude to civilians; the US's denunciation of "defeatism" simply proves it), its questionable whether it was worth fighting at all. The Afghan government does not respect human rights. It still practices the death penalty. It does not permit freedom of religion, and still prosecutes people for "blasphemy". Such a government is not worth the life of a single person, and we should not be sending our troops into danger to protect it.

How they're paying for it

National plans to give away far more money to the rich than Labour by cutting taxes. So, how do they plan to pay for it? Firstly, by canning the R&D tax credit [PDF]. Their research, science and technology policy [PDF] had previously said they would cut it, and distribute the money to universities and CRIs (on the basis they were better at research than business); now they're just killing it. Secondly, by ending government subsidies to employer contributions to KiwiSaver (something which was worth doing anyway - but see below). Thirdly, by promising to "control government expenditure" - which means sacking public servants (starting with MFAT). Overall, this gives them a slight saving on Labour's financial pathway - but its worth remembering that that's a financial pathway which includes all of those things. National is cutting services in order to get more money to hand out to their rich mates.

With Kiwisaver, the actual cut to funding won't make any difference - it was a subsidy to employers to do what they should be doing anyway, and a prime target for cutting. What will make a difference is gutting the scheme so that employers only have to contribute 2%, rather than it increasing to 4% over the next two years. They're also planning to allow employers to discriminate on the basis of membership in KiwiSaver, and effectively pay people less if they join, or rip their contributions right out of workers' pay packets. There are 800,000 KiwiSaver members - and National has just promised every single one of them a pay cut. I wonder which way they'll be voting in November?

Comparing the packages

So how do National's tax cuts compare with Labour's? Here's a table showing the distribution of Labour's remaining package:

(Methodology: Effects calculated from Treasury's 2008 detailed model data, percentages and numbers of taxpayers from Budget 2008 Who pays income tax and how much?. There's a slight kludge around the threshold shift to $42,500, where I assumed income in the 42 - 43,000 band was evenly split. This is a slight underestimate, but the effect is not significant).

While it still over-rewards those at the top who need it least, Labour's package is much fairer than National's. That doesn't change the fact that it is irresponsible and unaffordable and should be scaled back (personally, I'd chop everything beyond the lower bracket threshold change, which benefits everyone; total saving $850 million a year) - but if forced to choose between the two, I'd choose Labour's.

Who benefits from National's tax cuts?

National released its tax cut policy [PDF] today, and as predicted, they massively favour the rich, cutting the top and middle rates and shifting thresholds while delivering absolutely nothing to those on the bottom. In fact, the raw changes alone did very little for National's vaunted "middle income earners" either, so they have had to introduce an "independent earner rebate" for those not receiving Working For Families to prop up the figures. But even with that, its very clear who will benefit:

(Methodology: This calculation is for the total package. Effects are calculated from Treasury's 2008 detailed model data, percentages and numbers of taxpayers from Budget 2008 Who pays income tax and how much?. The value of the "independent earner rebate" is estimated; there are about 700,000 taxpayers in the eligible range, and National estimates half are eligible. Charitably, I've assigned the entire benefit to the 20K - 40K income band, though some recipients will be in the 40K - 70K band).

Make no mistakes: this scheme is designed to pander almost exclusively to the rich, with any benefit to anybody else as an afterthought. In their first tranch, around 60% of taxpayers - everyone earning under 20,000, and around half of those in the 24 - 40,000 range - get exactly nothing, while those on high incomes get large rewards. While Labour's tax cuts were irresponsible, they were at least equitable, with the benefits distributed widely. National's plan doesn't even have that going for it; instead, they're just looting the state for the benefit of their rich mates, and driving us into debt and cancelling social services in order to do it.

Writ day

The Governor-General has signed the writ ordering the election. So, it is now officially happening. Nominations open tomorrow, and close in a week; that sounds short, but most parties have already selected their candidates, so all they need to do is fill out a form (the only party which hasn't announced candidates or a list is NZ First). A full list of candidates will be announced on October 15.

Guantanamo: freeing the innocent

Remember the Uighurs? Captured in Afghanistan in late 2001, they have spent the last seven years in Guantanamo, despite being completely cleared twice by a kangaroo court. But the US has refused to release them, on the basis that they face a severe risk of torture and persecution in repatriated to China. So instead, they've spent the last six years in prison, as if they were criminals.

Now, a US judge has finally decided that this imprisonment of the innocent is intolerable, and ordered these 17 men released. Inside the United States:

A US judge has ordered that 17 Chinese Muslims held at Guantanamo Bay be released into the United States.

In a landmark ruling, US District Judge Ricardo Urbina said Washington could not detain the 17 because they were no longer considered enemy combatants.

The Bush Administration is livid - as are the Chinese. But the rest of us should be celebrating that justice has finally prevailed. After imprisoning these innocent men for seven years, the least the US owes them is refugee status.

Overstepping her role

The Westminster System is based on a simple bargain: the monarch lets Parliament run the country, and we don't cut off their head (or their sock budget, since we're civilised now). Translated to former colonies with responsible government such as New Zealand and Australia, this means the monarch's representative - the Governor-General - acts only on the advice of Ministers who hold the confidence of the elected Parliament, signs whatever is put in front of them, and above all, keeps out of politics.

Unfortunately, it seems someone forgot to brief Australia's new Governor-General on the latter point when she was appointed. And so she's just spent her first official trip - designed to "symbolise the issues of most concern to her" - advocating for policy:

While the conflicting needs of remote and rural Australia are the Governor General, Quentin Bryce's top priority, the first woman in the role has said she will continue the push for paid parental leave, calling it crucial to women's health and the preservation of strong families.

Outlining her goals in an interview today with the Herald in Menindee, a small town near Broken Hill, Her Excellency spoke about the enormous pressures bearing down on the bush. She said she deliberately tackled the Murray Darling Basin on her first official trip to symbolise the issues of most concern to her - among them, the scarcity of water and its effect on farming, indigenous communities and the environment.

(Emphasis added; barbarous grammar courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald)

As much as I might agree with that policy, Bryce is wildly overstepping her role. The Governor-General is supposed to be a figurehead, nothing more. They are supposed to be "above politics". They are not supposed to have "goals" or "issues of concern". And they are certainly not supposed to try and tell the elected government what to do, or push for any particular policy. If Bryce wants to do that, she should resign and run for election. Otherwise, she should remember her place, STFU, and leave the politics to the politicians.

As for New Zealand, this is one reason why we've made a habit recently of appointing judges to the figurehead spot: because they know their place.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008



Scaled back

National has scaled back its tax cuts in response to the PREFU. How much is something we'll find out tomorrow, but its at least a small sign that they're not totally insane.

I'm actually wondering whether they'll leapfrog Labour, cancel the existing unaffordable tax cuts legislated for in 2010 and 2011, and replace them with their own smaller package which distributes the gains exclusively to the rich, spun as a "necessary economic stimulus". Fiscal responsability and rampant looting for the benefit of their cronies in one package! OTOH, they've spent the past six years baying for loot and promising "ours will be bigger than theirs"; I'm not so sure they can really back away from it now.

Espiner gets it too

TVNZ's Guyon Espiner on the way the PREFU has changed the campaign:

The election is not now about whether you get $30 a week from Labour's tax cuts and $50 from National's.

It's not about whether you get an extra $20 a week, but whether you still have a job and can pay your mortgage on a house that's actually worth something.

Espiner agrees that the election is now all about trust, but he characterises it as trust in economic management. I'd characterise it differently. Recessions aren't about poor macroeconomic statistics, but about people - people who are going to lose their jobs, and need to fall back on the state in their time of need. The question then is who do we trust to care for the victims (remembering that any of us could end up as one of them), minimise the damage, and ensure they can get on with their lives when the economy picks up again? The people who slashed welfare benefits? Or the people who have maintained them? The people who slashed health spending? Or the people who have expanded it? The people who don't care about the poor? Or the people who do?

The reality of boot camps

Earlier this year, John Key suggested military-style boot camps as a "solution" for troubled youth - and was roundly criticised for proposing a solution which had been empirically shown to be counterproductive. But there are other problems with such institutions as well. In the Listener last month, Matt Nippert explored the history of one such institution - the Whakapakari Youth Trust on Great Barrier Island. CYFS sent violent youths there for twenty years to learn wilderness survival skills and wean them off drugs. But the camp had a culture of sadism, violence, abuse and neglect - some of it serious:

Most of the 19 former residents interviewed for an official CYF report on Whakapakari said they saw serious assaults. One alleged several sexual violations by a staff member, but this young person “was too scared to lay [a] complaint with police”.

Transcripts of social workers’ interviews conducted with residents described assaults by staff that were so commonplace that slang terms had been coined to differentiate between kicks. A “toehack” was a kick up the backside, while a “punt” was a kick sideways. Some youngsters were deputised as enforcers, known as the “Flying Squad”, to physically discipline their peers.

The camp was eventually closed after a supervisor "disciplined" a child in his care by beating him in the head with a stick. And CYFS is now facing multiple lawsuits from former residents alleging violence and repeated sexual assault. No doubt the "Sensible" Sentencing Trust thinks this is all OK, and less than these kids deserved - but civilised people should be absolutely horrified. And John Key wants to bring this back? No thanks.

How will they pay for it?

Yesterday's PREFU bad news is causing people to ask the obvious question: how does National plan to pay for its tax cuts? But its also a question we should be asking in general. For example, yesterday National announced a knee-jerk move to abolish parole and imprison geriatrics - a move expected to cost $315 million (at least) for a new prison, plus $40 million a year in ongoing costs. So, how are they going to pay for that? What will they cut? we deserve an answer, but so far they haven't told us.

The Herald's John Armstrong gets it: the bad economic news means that the parties can no longer campaign on big promises or who has the biggest tax cut. Instead, its about who can better manage (and is possible, shorten) the recession. And by promising to give more money away regardless, National has shown it is not in that game.

New Fisk

Secrets of Iraq's death chamber

Dow 10,000!

Many years ago, at the height of the tech boom, the US celebrated the Dow Jones Industrial Average finally reaching the dizzying heights of 10,000 points. It was seen as the symbol of a new economic era of unlimited growth, in which markets had "broken out of the old boom bust cycle" (this was of course just before a little thing known as the "tech bust"...).

Somehow, I don't think they're celebrating now. And this less than a week after being handed $700 bllion of free money.

But it does look like Ken MacLeod was right, and that the drugs don't work.

Irresponsible

The Herald headline says it all: Key: $30b deficit won't stop Nats tax cuts. Do we need any more evidence that National is really just about looting the state for the benefit of their rich mates?

Monday, October 06, 2008



More thoughts on the PREFU

What does the Pre-Election Fiscal Update tell us? Here's a few thoughts:

  • Firstly, Labour's tax cuts weren't really affordable. They were an irresponsible election-year bribe which mortgaged our future to pander to the selfishness of those on upper income brackets. Comparing the debt figures with those from the BEFU, it's telling that the difference in gross sovereign issued debt - the amount the government has had to borrow - is $13.1 billion, just $1.6 billion more than the cost of those tax cuts. If Labour hadn't cut taxes, we wouldn't be in this mess. We'd still be running deficits, but they would be small and very manageable.
  • Secondly, it means that we certainly can't afford to cut taxes any further, as National is promising to do.
  • Thirdly, there is absolutely no money lying around for big election year policies. The cupboard is bare. We should scale back expectations accordingly. If parties want big, headline grabbing policy, they'll actually have to think rather than just spend. This may be beyond them.
  • Fourthly, isn't the government's policy of free allocation for the ETS looking a bit stupid now? If we'd auctioned, we'd be a lot better off financially.
  • Fifthly, this is exactly the sort of economic crisis National needs to justify a radical policy shift - John Key's "BNZ moment". All those promises that they will continue the status quo and not restart the Revolution by pursuing slash and burn tactics for the benefit of their rich mates? Absolutely worthless. Fortunately, MMP should provide a check, provided National doesn't have easy coalition options.
  • Finally, whoever is delivering the budget next year will be having to make some painful cuts to government spending to try and balance the books. National will play up the risk of Labour cancelling the second and third rounds of their tax cuts; Labour the risk that National would cut benefits, underfund health and education, or start selling assets. So, the election really is about trust - who you trust not to screw you over in bad economic times.
The latter point should strongly favour the left.

Climate change: the increasing cost of inaction

As part of its pre-election fiscal update, Treasury also released updated figures for the Kyoto liability today, showing it ballooning by 20% to $582 million due to decreases in the exchange rate and an increase in overseas carbon prices. They're now pricing carbon at almost NZ$26 / ton. A little over two years ago, it was less than $10. Which really does make you wonder why they didn't buy some credits back then, just to be on the safe side...

All along, our attitude to climate change has been to wait and see and hope it will all go away. But the risks have all been on the downside, and while we've been waiting, the cost of our inaction has been increasing dramatically. I'd like to think that politicians will learn a lesson for this, and act early just to be on the safe side in future - but somehow, I don't really expect them to.

In the red

The PREFU is up. The short version (based on the executive summary [PDF]): significantly lower economic growth (but picking up again in mid-2009), and therefore much lower tax revenue ($900 million a year) and higher government spending (about $500 million a year more in benefits due to higher unemployment). Together, these completely blow a hole in the government's allowance for future spending increases, which it had already spent. Throw in an extra $480 million due to higher than expected uptake of 20-hours free and Kiwisaver, and higher debt servicing costs ($500 million a year) due to the financial crisis, and the government is looking at a deficit next year of almost $6 billion, growing to $7.3 billion by 2012. And we'll be in the red for the next decade (rather than just skimming it for the next three years):

And this is based on their picture of the economy in late August. Given the changes since then, the situation is likely to be much worse than expected.

In short, this is not a time to be borrowing for tax cuts, as John Key is promising. if we have to run a deficit, we have to run a deficit, but we shouldn't go out of our way to make it any worse than it already is.

(And I wasn't even in the lockup...)

Something to go to in Wellington

The VUW debating society is holding their election debate tonight, on the topic of "that we need a centre-right government":

When: 18:30 - 20:00, Monday, 6 October (tonight!)
Where: Lecture Theatre One, Rutherford House, VUW (just by the railway station)
How much: Gold coin entry

Affirmative:

  • Stephen Franks - National candidate for Wellington Central
  • Christopher Finlayson MP - National List MP and Rongotai candidate
  • Stephen Whittington - champion Victoria student debater

Negative:

  • Grant Robertson - Labour candidate for Wellington Central
  • Sue Kedgley MP - Green candidate for Wellington Central
  • Polly Higbee - champion Victoria student debater

The debate will be chaired by Sean Plunket (assuming Radio NZ doesn't veto that too).

Important questions

On Morning Report this morning [audio], NZSE Chief Executive Mark Weldon asked an important question: how do our politicians plan to respond to the global financial crisis?

"...Look if things have changed, if credit is no longer cheaply available, if the dairy sector's at risk and the housing market's falling - what are your policies that actually are going to allow the productive sector to help New Zealand earn its way out of this?

"...The debate has been appallingly silent actually on what these guys on both sides are going to do to address these changed conditions."

It's an important question, and one we should be asking ourselves. US and European banks are still falling over due to the frozen credit market, and there's a possibility that "our" (well, the Australians') banks, who borrow short on international markets to lend long on mortgages, will face similar pressures. What will our politicians do if this happens? What will they do to ensure that otherwise stable New Zealand businesses have access to credit? Above all, what will they do to help kiwi families cope with the inevitable effects of economic recession? They've been completely silent on this issue.

Even if the financial crisis is all just panic (which its not), it will dominate at least the first year of the next government. If its anything like its cracked up to be, it could dominate the entire term. How they plan to cope with it should be the most pressing policy question of the entire election, and its aftereffects may have a significant influence on the next one. So shouldn't they be standing up and telling us, so we can elect the best government for the job?

Hang 'em high

So, National has joined the "hang 'em high" brigade, announcing a law and order policy consisting of two shallow slogans: "Life means life" and "no parole for violent offenders". It will do absolutely nothing to reduce crime - a 1997 study from the Ministry of Justice found that there was no correlation between severity of punishment or incarceration rates and crimes rates - but it will play well with the tiny band of vindictive, bloodthirsty sadists for whom no punishment will ever be enough to compensate them for their loss (an attitude which fundamentally misses the point of punishment).

But these knee-jerk policies have consequences. Firstly, they mean more people in jail, which means more prisons. And as National has constantly reminded us over the last nine years, prisons are expensive. But more importantly, they also mean no incentives at all for those in prison to improve their behaviour, and no incentive for them to stay out of trouble when they get out (meaning: higher reoffending rates, and even more people in prison). And that's the real problem. We cannot afford to waste billions of dollars a year warehousing society's failures like this. But that is what National is committing us to. It is fundamentally misconceived, and aimed at pandering to society's worst instincts - but that's what you get in a society where the media systematically overreports crime because its easy, lurid, and gets ratings.

It's also a great distraction from National's yawning policy gap elsewhere. "Details? We don't need policy details. Just focus on the outrage, and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. You'll find out what we want to do when we get elected..."

New Kiwi blog

Luddite Journo - "Student journo ramblings in Aotearoa/New Zealand".

Sunday, October 05, 2008



Shallow

As I'm sure everyone knows, there's an election in six weeks. Which is why our self-proclimaed "newspaper of record" is asking politicians about their favourite music and asking its readers which politician would be more likely to help an old lady across the road.

Can I have real political journalism rather than this shallow pap, please?

New Fisk

When it comes to Palestine and Israel, the US simply doesn't get it

A beginner’s guide to coalitions

(Cross-posted from Larvatus Prodeo, and aimed mainly at foreign readers)

The New Zealand election is still in a phoney campaign, with the parties only just beginning to launch their campaigns. Which gives me more time to fill in the background. Deborah has already done an excellent beginner's guide to MMP, so I thought I'd follow up with what MMP naturally results in: coalitions.

Australians may think they are already familiar with coalitions. After all, you have one as a permanent feature of your political landscape, and it ran the country for eleven years under John Howard. But that's a very traditional form of coalition. Here in New Zealand, we do things rather differently. The best way of illustrating this is to show how coalition arrangements have changed over the years.

Before MMP, there were no coalitions, or at least, none since the two-party system solidified in 1938. The unfair electoral system leveraged pluralities (and sometimes not even that) into majorities, allowing governments to do what they liked, with no checks and balances. Minor parties were an annoyance, not a potential partner in power, and so were generally ignored. As a result, New Zealand politicians were unused to coalitions when MMP came along. And the first MMP coalition, between National and New Zealand First after the 1996 election, reflected this. Management-wise, it followed the Australian model, with the two parties agreeing to act jointly on all things (I think they may even have shared a caucus, but I may be mistaken about that). New Zealand First gained the position of Deputy Prime Minister, as well as five Cabinet positions (and four Ministers outside Cabinet) - but those Ministers (and by extension, the party they dominated) were required to follow the Cabinet line in all things, thanks to the doctrine of Cabinet Collective Responsibility (this will become important later).

Thanks to past bad blood (Winston Peters, the NZ First leader, was a former National Party Cabinet Minister), the two parties did not trust each other, and so the coalition was governed by an exhaustive written agreement backed by a detailed agreement on policy. However, there were policy tensions between the parties, which were exacerbated when an internal coup within National saw it shift back towards neoliberalism. The coalition eventually fell apart, with National continuing to govern with the aid of defectors from NZ First and other parties - all of whom lost their seats in the 1999 election.

In retrospect, these sorts of arrangements were too brittle, and failed to deal with what is now called the "unity-distinctiveness dilemma" - the need for coalition partners to remain united for the purposes of advancing shared policies, but at the same time remain distinct so as to appeal to their separate bases of support. Every coalition arrangement since has been progressively looser in an effort to resolve this problem. So, in 1999, the new Labour-Alliance coalition (a minority coalition which needed support from the Greens to do anything) went for a much shorter arrangement, essentially agreeing on overarching goals and good faith discussion of how to achieve them. More importantly, it was recognised that the coalition parties would need to disagree on some things, and arrangements were made to allow this to happen without it causing the government to fall over. Most importantly, Cabinet Collective Responsibility was weakened (and the Cabinet Manual formally revised) to allow Ministers to disagree with the government in certain circumstances. In the end, this was not enough to save the Alliance - their poll numbers plummeted as they were seen to be "absorbed" by Labour, and the party eventually imploded due to tensions over the US invasion of Afghanistan.

The 2002 election saw even looser arrangements. Labour concluded a coalition agreement with the Progressives (a rump of the Alliance, centred on party leader Jim Anderton), but this was not enough to gain a majority on confidence and supply. So they cut a deal with the United Future Party promising specified policies and general consultation in exchange for support on confidence and supply. In addition, despite bad blood from the campaign, they also entered a cooperation agreement [PDF] with the Greens, promising general consultation and influence on policy development in certain areas. The post-2005 coalition agreements mirrored these sorts of arrangements, albeit with a different combination of parties, and with the innovation of support parties having Ministers outside Cabinet, bound by Cabinet Collective Responsibility only in their portfolio areas. So, we can have the Minister of Foreign Affairs criticise the government on free trade with China (not technically a foreign affairs topic) or immigration, without it impacting on their support for the government. The straitjacket has become very loose indeed.

While the experiment of Ministers outside Cabinet may not survive, loose coalition arrangements based on a few specified policies coupled with general consultation have been established as the norm. And the reason for this is simple: power. In a shared caucus, or where policy is decided on by a joint committee, small parties have no power. In the former, they can be outvoted. In the latter, at best, they can achieve deadlock. But by minimising their commitments, small parties maximise their freedom of action, and thereby their influence and ability to represent their constituents. Beyond a limited number of pre-agreed areas, the government has to come to them on every vote, allowing them to bargain for concessions, amendments, or (if they are inclined that way) quid pro quos. That said, the parties represent fairly well-defined policy positions, and can generally be relied upon to support legislation which advances their interests regardless. But the requirement for consultation gives them significant influence over policy before it even hits the House - and that is influence they will want to retain. I cannot imagine a return to a 1996-style coalition - small parties just won't sign up to it. And if a large party insists on such an arrangement, they won't get to be government.

Saturday, October 04, 2008



Bailed out

The US Congress has passed the billionaire bailout bill. So, the Wall St shysters who crashed the economy get to laugh all the way to the bank, their bonuses, megayachts, and mansions intact. Meanwhile, the US taxpayer gets to carry the can for their gambling habit - and sacrifice their future hopes for a working health or education system to do so. You couldn't get a clearer example of the way the US is set up to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. And I'm surprised that the US people are putting up with it.

The bailout was supposedly necessary because the banks had stopped lending to the real economy. The "solution" was to buy their bogus assets at vastly inflated prices in a dirty backroom deal cooked up between the US Treasury Secretary and his former workmates at Goldman-Sachs. A better solution would have been to cut the banks out entirely, and instead get the government into the lending business by setting up or buying their own bank and providing credit directly - bail out the real economy, and let Wall St burn. But that, apparently, would be "communism".

Registered

The Electoral Commission has finalised its list of registered parties participating in the general election. The Worker's Party, a plucky bunch of Marxists with a strong following in Wellington, managed to get their act (and 500 members) together to register. The Liberal Party, a supposedly professional bunch who popped up earlier this year, didn't. So much for that chance for a centrist, liberal party (though their descent into anti-EFA lunacy really marked them as nothing of the sort).

The full list of registered parties is here. There are twenty-one all up, including two groups of Marxists, at least three of Christians (depending on whether you count Peter Dunne and/or Taito Philip Field), plus two (other) joke parties. It looks like we're spoiled for choice...