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A YES vote in the upcoming referendum protects children and supports parents

Thursday, October 22, 2009



AFK

Busy today and tomorrow, so nothing more from me today. Sorry.

"Financial discipline"

Since getting elected and giving away over a billion dollars a year to their rich mates, National has spun hard on financial discipline, lying about "cutting waste" (there wasn't any), being left "unfunded commitments" (wrong again), and being left a "financial mess" (no net debt and the strongest books in two generations) by the previous government in an effort to tar Labour's legacy of good economic management and paint themselves as the financially respectable party (Yeah, right). So you'd expect that having made all that noise, when they propose major changes to ACC with significant financial flow-on effects to other departments (e.g. Health and Social Development) and private individuals, they'd bother to cost those changes, right?

Wrong:

The Treasury’s adequacy statement in the [ACC] Bill says it does not contain required cost information and the Government’s analysis is incomplete. The cuts to ACC entitlements will shift costs to other government departments or onto workers and there is no quantification of these costs.

Treasury stated: “The proposal to introduce experience rating and risk sharing in the ACC Work Account will increase administrative and compliance costs for business and for the ACC scheme, yet these costs have not been investigated.”

Why haven't they been? Because of the hurry. Having talked up a crisis in ACC, National wants to be seen to be "acting decisively" to "solve" it. And of course, if they wait too long, the moment of low interest rates (and therefore of imbalance in ACC's books) could pass - and the "need" for "reform" with it. So we get policy made in a mad rush, with no thought, no costings - and certainly no checks and balances.

(This of course assumes that National is serious in its proposals. A more cynical person might say that they haven't costed it because the costs are irrelevant; the goal is privatisation to give their insurance industry mates a $200 million windfall, and they don't care who pays for it...)

This is no way to run a country. But sadly, we're stuck with it for at least the next two years.

Some stats on urgency

How bad is National's abuse of urgency? I've just obtained some hard data from Parliament, and it speaks for itself:

  • The 48th Parliament sat for a total of 1503.75 hours between 2005 and 2008. Of that time, 148.75 hours - 9.9% - were under urgency.
  • The 49th Parliament has sat for 545 hours since its election in 2008. Of that time, 183 hours - 33.6% - have been under urgency.

So there you have it. Not only is National using urgency more than three times as often as Labour - they've already sat for more hours under urgency than the previous three years of Labour-led government. Quite an achievement.

Labour's low use of urgency wasn't due to any virtue on their part; rather, they simply didn't have a majority for it except for the rare cases where it was actually necessary, or the pre-holiday crush. By contrast, National's rubberstamp support partners give it an easy majority, which they are abusing in full autocratic style. The result is a return to the "elected dictatorship" of old, when the government does whatever it wants and Parliament is reduced to a rubberstamp "fastest legislature in the west".

This autocratic approach to government is one of the reasons people voted for MMP: to hamstring government, slow it down, and thereby bring it back under control. Clearly, we didn't do a good enough job last time round...

Not so urgent after all

So, having called urgency yesterday, the House rose early tonight when it ran out of business. Which suggests that said business wasn't so urgent after all - and certainly not urgent enough to justify eating Wednesday.

Trevor Mallard suggests its a sign of poor House management, and I agree. Really, can't Brownlee count? Or did they not have the numbers for the un-named bills they were planning to introduce?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009



Another ACT rort?

A trio of ACT MPs were in Dunedin last month, holding a forum on "The hard questions - and some answers". Attendees were charged $10, or $5 if they were under 25, with the money going to the ACT party.

What's the bet they travelled there on the public tab, courtesy of Parliamentary Services? Unfortunately, thanks to self-serving politicians excluding their expenses from the coverage of the OIA, we'll never know.

Climate change: Designed to fail

How much will the government's massive subsidies for pollution cost us? The submission of Dr Christina Hood [PDF], a former analyst for MfE and current climate change advisor to the Kapiti Coast Distrct Council, has the answer: $105 billion by 2050:

Its a staggering sum, over 50% of present GDP. And it will go straight from our pockets into the pockets of polluters.

Note that after an initial dip, the number of units allocated - and hence emissions allowed - does not decrease, and in fact increases to 2050. This is a consequence of intensity-based allocation and projected growth in the farming sector. Its also worth noting that the government's proposed allocation scheme makes it impossible to meet their oft-proclaimed "50% by 2050" (i.e. about 30 million ton) target. Instead, they are committing our emissions to being at least 70% of 1990 levels in free credits alone.

This isn't even "do nothing". Instead, it's "announce target - set policy to ensure it cannot be met - hope that no-one notices". It is a policy designed to fail. And it makes crystal clear that all the government's talk of a 2050 target is simply spin.

Is it a crime?

Is Rodney Hide's corrupt abuse of office to line the pockets of his party a crime? Section 102 of the Crimes Act 1961 outlaws "Corruption and bribery of Minister of the Crown". The relevant subsection reads:

Every Minister of the Crown or member of the Executive Council is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years who corruptly accepts or obtains, or agrees or offers to accept or attempts to obtain, any bribe for himself or any other person in respect of any act done or omitted, or to be done or omitted, by him in his capacity as a Minister or member of the Executive Council.
(Emphasis added).

Is Rodney a Minister of the Crown? Check.

Has he asked for money for himself or any other person? Check.

Is the act he has asked for money to perform - the promotion of policy - one done in his capacity as a Minister? Check.

Is the money a "bribe"? Arguable. Hide calls it a "donation". Whether political donations are bribes or not tends to depend on whether you are a politician or a member of the public.

The latter almost certainly rules our prosecution. But its an awfully thin thread to hang a defence on, particularly when we are talking about public faith in the political system. Regardless of whether you think political donations are bribes or not, this doesn't pass the smell test. Ministers must be seen to uphold the highest ethical standards in the exercise of their office, and they must properly distinguish between their Ministerial and party-political capacities. Hide has failed to make that distinction, and in a way which undermines public faith in our political system. He is simply not fit for Ministerial office.

A perk of office

One of the expectations in our modern, non-corrupt democracy is that government is a free service. If you want your MP to do something for you, you won't be charged a fee, and if you want to know what the government is planning to do, you won't have to give a backhander to a Minister for the privilege. Access to government is not for sale in this country.

Not according to Rodney Hide. He's running a roadshow on his plans for local government - explicitly government business, the sort of thing we expect Ministers to do as a matter of course - as an ACT party fundraiser. If local body members in Christchurch want to know what the Minister has planned for them, they have to pay a fee to his party for the privilege.

This is a gross abuse of office. Promoting policy is explicitly listed in the Cabinet Manual as being something done in a Ministerial capacity. And the rules on how Ministers conduct themselves in that capacity are very clear:

accepting additional payment for doing anything that could be regarded as a ministerial function is not permissible;
The payment is to Hide's party, but I don't think that lets him off the hook, any more than paying a partner or relative or business associate would. He profits indirectly through increased election chances, and the perception is that the party is being paid for his services as a Minister. This absolutely fails to meet the requirement that
In all these roles and at all times, Ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards.
Rodney Hide has failed to meet that standard. He has behaved in a way which is frankly corrupt. But I guess he just regards it as a perk of office.

The 2008 election inquiry

The Justice and Electoral Committee has reported back [PDF] on its inquiry into the 2008 election. The inquiry is a standard part of the electoral cycle, a regular review to see how things went and whether any changes should be made. This year a lot of stuff - reform of the electoral agencies, the Electoral Finance Act - was off the table due to reviews already in process, and so they focused heavily on the electoral process. The most significant change they recommended was to remove the requirement for voters to establish grounds to vote in advance, a change which would allow much wider use of advance voting. The driver here is a massive increase in advance voting - 35% in the last electoral cycle - which they attribute to lifestyle changes and shifts in working patterns which mean it is no longer convenient for everyone to vote on a Saturday. The Chief Electoral office described it as people voting with their feet, and they want to support it. IMHO its a good suggestion, which will make voting more accessible to more people - a Good Thing in a democracy.

The Greens raised an interesting question about "authorised witnesses" - party hacks who are authorised by the returning officer to go round e.g. old-age homes on election day and witness and collect special votes. We have no information on these people, how they operate, or the number of votes they collect. None whatsoever. The Chief Electoral Office simply doesn't collect it. Given the obvious potential abuses here, its something there should be a lot more scrutiny of; our electoral system is too important to simply take it on trust.

One other interesting point is that the Electoral Enrolment Centre is working on plans to allow full online enrolment. This would make it much easier for young voters to enrol, and getting them to enrol is the key to getting them to participate. Its a good move, and hopefully it'll be ready for the next election.

No Member's Day

Today is Tuesday.

Yes, of course its not - but it is in Parliament. Yesterday the government put the House into urgency just because they could, meaning that it is nominally Tuesday until they decide it isn't (which will likely happen sometime on what we in the real world would call Thursday evening, or maybe Friday morning). Tuesday lasting all week means that Wednesday doesn't happen, which means that there is no Member's Day. Yes, once again the government has just walked all over the (already extremely limited) rights of Parliament and eaten the valuable and limited time of Members so they can get a few extra hours for such staggeringly important legislation as the Subordinate Legislation (Confirmation and Validation) Bill and Social Assistance (Payment of New Zealand Superannuation and Veteran’s Pension Overseas) Amendment Bill. Interestingly, by doing so they've avoided a messy debate on John Boscawen's child-beating bill. But I'm sure there's no connection at all. Really.

The government's legislative style is increasingly looking like a re-run of the 80's, with legislation introduced under urgency to avoid public debate, and rammed through in minimal time with little scrutiny. They can do this because they have an easy majority, thanks to compliant support parties willing to rubberstamp urgency in exchange for a seat in the back of a Ministerial Limo. Its a perfect warning of the danger of such arrangements - and of the need to hamstring government in future.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009



Irony is dead

Family First's Bob McCoskrie on the upcoming MMP referendum:

“The question ‘do voters want to retain MMP’ is confusing because a voter wanting change in the Electoral system will have to vote NO,” says Bob McCoskrie. “It's a pretty weird referendum when yes means no and no means yes.”
Yes, it is - but I didn't notice him complaining last time.

But snark about McCoskrie's obvious hypocrisy aside, the questions haven't actually been decided yet. As for what they should be, in 1992 voters were presented with two options: "I vote to retain the present FPP system" or "I vote for a change to the voting system". Repeating that, with the obvious change, seems to be the best and fairest solution.

Maori Party supports gutting ACC

The Maori Party will vote for the government's bill to gut ACC, even though they explicitly acknowledge that the bill will further restrict entitlements and be bad for Maori.

When the Maori Party first entered Parliament, they had a simple clear criterion for judging policy: "is it good for Maori"? Today, they have betrayed that principle.

Insanity

Not content with wanting to give massive subsidies to the nuclear industry, the UK government also wants to insulate them from the true costs of their activities by weakening standards around the disposal and storage of nuclear waste. The highlight? Letting them dump nuclear waste in local landfills.

This is simply insanity. At a time when western countries are shitting themselves over the risk of a "dirty bomb" (to the extent that in 2004 they robbed Iraq of all its medical radiation sources, leaving Iraqis to die of cancer), the UK is now proposing that the materials required to create one be left lying around with the trash. But its not just about terrorism - we've already seen the consequences of this sort of dumping in the third world and the former Soviet Union. Dumping this stuff in landfills means it will be found, scavenged, played with, and people will be contaminated and die as a result. But I guess the UK government doesn't care about that as much as it cares about the profits of the nuclear industry.

MMP referendum

So, its 2011, and with a two-stage process that mirrors the original referendum. Which is a lot better than what MMP refuseniks Graeme Hunt and Peter Shirtcliffe wanted, but there's still plenty of scope for the government to strap the chicken. Notably, the list of possible alternatives and the precise wording of the question has not yet been determined, meaning they could try to stack the vote by offering a unequal choice between MMP and an alternative with fewer MPs.

Either way, if we want to protect MMP, its not enough simply to vote for no change in 2011 - we also have to chuck out National, just to be on the safe side. Unfortunately, Labour's plans for MMP aren't much better (being led by a man who opposed its introduction doesn't help), so we need to make it clear to both parties: our democracy is non-negotiable.

National on ACC

Just in case anyone has any doubts that National will give ACT what it wants and use them as an excuse for ACC privatisation, here's their ACC policy [PDF] and policy backgrounder [PDF] from the 2008 election. The latter is quite explicit:

The experience of competition in the late 1990’s was healthy for ACC. Levy rates are now substantially lower as a result of that experience, and the ongoing prospect of competition. The current Government has retained the facility by which larger employers are able, as accredited employers, to opt out of the state monopoly, self-insure, and use a private administrator as the case manager.

It would not be possible now to replicate the large levy reductions that characterised the 1998 reforms. However, the National Party believes there is further scope to improve delivery of the scheme through the introduction of competition and choice.

[...]

The National Party is committed to the principles of competition and choice as the appropriate means of ensuring efficiency of ACC provision, and increasing incentives for improved workplace safety and better rehabilitation of accident victims.

Note that National admits that this will not be any cheaper for the public of New Zealand - there will be no "large levy reductions". The move is purely ideological, the benefits accruing solely to the insurance industry. Fairytales about employers "choosing" to pay more to provide greater cover to their workers (yeah, right) don't change that one iota.

Interestingly according to the policy backgrounder National opposed part-charges. Now they're considering a universal $50 or $100 excess to discourage claims. So much for consistency.

National will give ACT what it wants

The news today (insomuch as there is any) is that National is negotiating with ACT over privatising ACC to get its preferred changes through. The grumbling about a party which won 3% of the vote getting to dictate policy has already started, but its worth remembering that during the election National campaigned on exactly ACT's policy: privatising the work account for the profit of the insurance industry - something John Key was thoughtful enough to remind the press gallery of yesterday. So, while everyone is distracted by the dance, the outcome isn't really in question. National will give ACT what it wants, because they want it too.

Meanwhile, there's a telling omission from Key's criteria for privatisation:

Mr Key said if the ACC work account was opened up to competition, National would "need to be convinced that there were benefits both to the Government and the private sector".
Who's missing? Only the most important stakeholder: the people of New Zealand, who depend on the scheme for cover. But the reason we're missing is because we're the group that won't benefit. An independent review in 2008 found that there were no gains to be made from privatisation. That means that any benefits to the government and the private sector - and Key's former employers Merrill Lynch are on record as estimating they'd make $200 million from privatisation - have to come out of our pockets, in the form of higher premiums and lower entitlements. Key and ACT are plotting to screw us over, while their rich Aussie mates laugh all the way to the bank.

This is not something we should tolerate. Like Auckland's assets, ACC is not theirs to sell - or to privatise, "open to competition", or however else they want to spin it. It is there to provide a service to the people of New Zealand, and it is the governments job to ensure that it keeps providing that service. There is no question that we can afford it - the current "crisis" is entirely manufactured, born of temporary changes to interest rates rather than any real problem (the scheme notably is still taking in far more per year than the long-term cost of claims; at worst the current problems threaten the date at which it is considered to be fully funded, not whether it will be, and certainly not its ability to provide cover). National's moves to undermine and privatise ACC are a fundamental betrayal of trust and a theft from the people of New Zealand. And we should hold them accountable for it.

Monday, October 19, 2009



New Labour's new nadir

UK postal workers are going on strike this week over privatisation and plans to "modernise" the postal service - which means them working harder and longer for less money. In response, the postal service - with the full support of the "Labour" government - has announced plans to hire 30,000 scabs to crush the strike.

And UK Labour wonders why its core voters have given up on it...

Drinking Liberally this week

Drinking Liberally is on in Auckland and Wellington this week:

When: 19:00, Wednesday 21 October
Where: The London Bar, upstairs cnr Queen and Wellesley Streets, Auckland CBD
Who: Greenpeace Executive Director Bunny McDiarmid on climate change and the Sign On campaign.

When: 17:30, Thursday 22 October
Where: The Southern Cross, Wellington
Who: Wellington City Councillor and mayoral candidate Celia Wade-Brown on the threat of a Wellington supercity

[Hat-tip: The Standard on the latter]

A new entry in the political lexicon

Kicking the tyres: to promote radical change for the benefit of the few.

We've seen National try this little piece of spin twice now, first on MMP, and now on ACC. In both cases they clearly have a specific plan in mind - rolling back MMP in favour of an unfair and non-proportional system of plurality rule and rolling back core ACC entitlements and privatising the scheme so as to transfer wealth to their donors and cronies in the insurance industry respectively - and in both cases the public of New Zealand is the loser. But National isn't there to serve the public of New Zealand - they're there to serve the interests of their big business buddies, and they have absolutely no shame about it.

Meanwhile, it seems that ACC Minister Nick Smith has acquired a habit of trying to lie his way out of trouble. On Sunday, he was denying that the proposals uncovered by the Sunday Star-Times were even being debated; today, he admits that they are under active consideration. Quite apart from the merits of the proposal (and I agree with the ACC schemes architect, Owen Woodhouse: there aren't any), that sort of deceitful attitude is simply unacceptable in a minister and unacceptable in a government. But I guess the reality of their plan is so unpalatable - "we want to make you worse off so our friends will get richer" - that deceit is their only option if they want to get elected.

Provocation repeal gets a step closer

The Justice and Electoral Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Crimes (Provocation Repeal) Amendment Bill, and recommended that it be passed with a minor tweak to clarify that the common law defence of provocation is also abolished. The bill will now go back to the House, and will hopefully be law by the end of the year.

The select committee report does deal briefly with some of the myths of provocation - primarily that it protects battered or mentally ill defendants, rather than violent bigots and misogynists - and dismisses them. There is simply no justification for this relic of the past to continue in New Zealand law, and the sooner it is expunged, the better.

New Fisk

You don't need colour to see the full bloody horror of war

Friday, October 16, 2009



Surely this is contempt?

Not content with trying (and failing) to forbid the Guardian from reporting on the fact of an upcoming debate in Parliament about their work on behalf of one of their clients, UK solicitors Carter-Ruck are now trying to prevent Parliament from having the debate.

Surely this is contempt of Parliament. Yes, Parliament respects the courts and does not debate matters which are sub judice. But they do it out of politeness, not because they can't. And purporting to forbid a Parliamentary debate seems to me to be trying to interfere with the conduct of Members in their duties - a classic case of contempt.

Climate change: We are all terrorists now

Worried about the environment? Want the government to actually act on climate change? That makes you a terrorist, according to the UK police:

Terror legislation was used to stop a British climate change activist from travelling to Denmark, it has emerged.

Chris Kitchen, 31, said he was prevented from crossing the border on Tuesday at about 5pm when the coach he was travelling on stopped at the Folkestone terminal of the Channel Tunnel.

Mr Kitchen told the Guardian that police officers boarded the coach and, after checking all passengers' passports, took him and another climate activist to be interviewed under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, a clause which enables border officials to stop and search individuals to determine if they are connected to terrorism.

He was asked what he intended to do in Copenhagen and also about his family, work and past political activity.

Mr Kitchen said he pointed out that anti-terrorist legislation did not apply to environmental activists but said the officer replied that terrorism "could mean a lot of things".

And so the UK has now joined the list of countries - like Fiji and the former Soviet Union - which restrict their people's freedom of movement based on their political views. Meanwhile, the conflation of democratic participation and public protest - already well-advanced in the UK - continues.

Climate change: The PCE on the ETS

The government's proposed changes to the ETS lack transparency and will remove any incentive to reduce emissions.

That was the opinion of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment - an independent officer of Parliament (like the Ombudsmen) with the task of "hold[ing] the Government to account for its environmental policies and actions" - at the Finance and Expenditure Committee yesterday. Their submission [PDF] takes the government to task for its move to unlimited intensity-based allocation, pointing out that they would effectively remove the price signal altogether for some sectors, and result in no reduction in emissions:

My greatest concern with the proposed amendments is the changes to allocation after 2012. The allocation of free carbon credits to industrial processes, industrial heat generation and petroleum refining sectors is extremely generous. Using the industry average baseline for allocation instead of aiming for better, the lack of a limit to the number of credits given away, and the increasingly slow phase-out, all result in allocation at very high levels. This essentially removes the price signal to this emissions-intensive sector, where New Zealand needs a carbon price signal the most.

Removing the price signal doesn’t remove the cost of emissions, since the taxpayer must pick up the tab. And without the incentive to invest in low carbon-intensive technology, emissions will continue to rise. This is not consistent with the stated purpose of the ETS.

The lack of a cap will allow emissions to grow, the phase-out rate is incompatible with the government's stated goal of a 50% reduction by 2050, and there is no justification for the allocation to agriculture. As for "protecting jobs", they point to research that the cost could be as much as $109,000 per job saved. Which is simply utter madness. Again, if we're willing to pay that much, then we can find something for these people to do which does not involve destroying the environment.

The second big problem is transparency. Allocation involves giving away billions of dollars of government money, yet it will all happen in secret. All the public will get is a total number. The PCE recommends that this be broken down by sector or industry, and with the free allocation justified in each case. I'd go further and break it down by firm - that way we can tell if we are really getting our money's worth (and whether the government's claims of "protecting jobs" are holding up). Screw commercial sensitivity - when they're sticking their hand out for millions of dollars a year in pollution subsidies in perpetuity, we have a right to know.

The PCE also pointed out that the allocation scheme is not politically durable as the Labour Party does not support it. I think that for the sake of the environment, Labour needs to be making a lot more noise about that. Business needs certainty on carbon costs to make investment decisions; denying them that certainty means they will not invest in pollution. Labour needs to be crystal clear: polluters may get a free ride under National, but that will end the moment the government changes, and large polluters will be paying the full cost of their activities. As for the Greens, they need to be making it clear that they will be demanding this as a bottom line in any future confidence and supply deal. And if business stupidly makes dirty investments in the face of such statements, they deserve to lose their money.

More wind

Mighty River Power has been granted resource consent for its proposed 12.5 MW windfarm at Long Gully near Wellington. Its a small project, but one of the advantages of wind is that it does not have to be big. And looking at the New Zealand Wind Energy Association's list of operating and under construction wind farms, it seems that there are several of these small clusters planned around the country.

Also looking at that list, it looks like we will pass 500 MW of generating capacity soon. meanwhile, there is over 2500 MW currently working through the consent process. Not all of this will be built, and the financial crisis has put some of the projects on hold, but its a good illustration of the potential we have available. We can have a renewable, sustainable future if we want; all we need is the right policy framework.

No freedom of speech in Russia

Back in the bad old days of the Soviet Union, Russians could not talk about the crimes of their government, and if they did, they got arrested.

Sadly, nothing has changed:

A Russian historian investigating the fate of Germans imprisoned in the Soviet Union during the second world war has been arrested, in the latest apparent clampdown on historical research into the Stalin era by the Russian authorities.

Mikhail Suprun was detained last month by officers from Russia's security services. They searched his apartment and carried off his entire personal archive. He has now been charged with violating privacy laws and, if convicted, faces up to four years in jail.

It seems the former KGB thugs who now run Russia want to establish an official version of history which whitewashes their crimes and cases Stalin as a hero, and are turning back to their own habits to achieve it. This isn't just a gross violation of freedom of speech - it is actively dangerous. Remember Orwell: "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future".

Rubberstamping pollution

The Tarawera River is one of our most polluted waterways. While the upper reaches are crystal clear, the lower parts are stained black due to pollution from the Tasman Pulp and Paper Mill in Kawerau. The mill dumps 150,000 tons of polluted mill waste into the river each day; as a result, the river is too filthy for most fish to live in, the water cannot be used by local orchardists or recreationally, let alone the local iwi for kaimoana.

The RMA explicitly rules out such pollution. Section 107 states that no resource consent shall be granted for discharging contaminants into water if it results in "any conspicuous change in the colour or visual clarity" of the water, renders it unsuitable for consumption by farm animals, or has a significant adverse effect on aquatic life. However, just this week, Environment Bay of Plenty granted the mill resource consent to continue polluting for the next 25 years.

How? Because section 107 also includes an exemption allowing consents to be granted in "exceptional circumstances". What's "exceptional"? Whatever the council wants it to be, of course. And so we're now in the Orwellian situation where the ordinary business-as-usual situation - pollution - is considered "exceptional" in order to please a powerful regional employer too cheap to run a clean operation.

This isn't good enough. The RMA is supposed to protect our waterways, not act as a rubberstamp for pollution. Green MP Catherine Delahunty has suggested tweaking the law to make it clear that consents granted in "exceptional circumstances" must be strictly temporary and require the polluter to clean up their act. It sounds like a bloody good idea to me.

Thursday, October 15, 2009



Smith undermines accountability

Today in the House Speaker Lockwood Smith decided to dock the opposition of a supplementary question as punishment for misbehaviour.

Quite apart from questions of bias (which is becoming apparent; Smith is very good at forcing Ministers to actually answer questions, but he is terrible at enforcing standards on his own party, and his consistency on this is woeful), this is a terrible way of enforcing discipline. Since Smith has so obviously forgotten, I'll remind him: Ministers are accountable to the people of New Zealand through Parliament. The chief day-to-day mechanism by which that accountability is enforced is supplementary questions in Question Time. By docking the opposition of a supplementary question, he punishes not them, but us.

This isn't good enough. By all means, he should throw misbehaving MPs out. But he should not protect his colleagues from scrutiny and undermine the government's accountability to the public.

Climate change: National loses

This morning I posted about National's attempts to limit hearing oral submissions on the Climate Change Response (Moderated Emissions Trading) Amendment Bill. National had planned to hear all oral submissions today, restricting the number heard to 27 (out of 160 who had asked to make an oral submission). Submitters were to be given just ten minutes each on what is the most significant change to the economy since the introduction of GST, and those contacted had been given the impression that if they did not take the opportunity to speak today, they would never be heard at all.

The good news is that National lost. First, the opposition pushed for everyone who had asked to be heard to be given a slot, then for the committee to sit next week to hear them. Both motions passed with the support of Labour, the Greens, the Maori Party and ACT, with National voting against. It is still a pathetic amount of time to hear submissions on legislation this complex, but it is far better than the fake process National was proposing.

Celebrating Labour Day

Next weekend is labour weekend, when we celebrate the achievement of the eight-hour day in New Zealand. To remind people of what its all about, the Tertiary Education Union has stuck up a site, http://www.labourday.org.nz/ with information on the history of labour day, the achievements of unions in winning better conditions for ordinary kiwis, and what still needs to be done.

Blowback

Back in World War I, the British government was concerned about the "reliability" of Italy as an ally and its commitment to the war. So they paid a small-time journalist to publish pro-war propaganda in his newspaper and organise groups of veterans to beat up anti-war protestors. His name? Benito Mussolini.

Well, that worked out well, didn't it?

Climate change: A mockery of the select committee process

Last month, the government's Climate Change Response (Moderated Emissions Trading) Amendment Bill, which guts the ETS and pays enormous, financially unsustainable subsidies to polluters, passed its first reading and was sent to select committee. Submissions to the Committee closed on Tuesday, and on an important bill like this you'd expect the Committee to spend a fair amount of time chewing them over.

Apparently not. Carbon News reports that National will move to have the Committee hear all oral submissions today, giving them just 10 minutes each (and 4.5 hours in total) on legislation which would make the most important change to the economy since the introduction of GST. As for what happens to submitters who wanted to make an oral presentation, but aren't available to do it on two hours notice in Wellington, I guess its just tough shit.

This is a mockery of the select committee process, and it turns any pretence of "consultation" on the changes into a bad joke. The government is simply not interested in people's views on this legislation. Instead it wants to ram it through in as short a time as possible, so it can start writing cheques to its corporate polluter cronies. Which makes you wonder why they bothered having a select committee at all...

Update: I hear ACT is demanding more time for submissions, which means it all comes down to the Maori Party. Will they support democracy or betray it?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009



Lockwood Smith: Freedom of speech for some but not for others

One of the core principles of Parliament is freedom of speech. Parliament is meant to be a place of open debate, where all views can be expressed.

Speaker of the House Lockwood Smith does not agree with this principle. Today, he ruled that labour MPs must remove signs calling for fair pay for Parliamentary Services workers (IIRC, he has previously asked them to remove badges). Meanwhile, he does not consider badges in support of breast cancer research to be disruptive of order. When pressed on his ruling, he claimed that Labour MPs should be able to tell the difference between one cause and the other. In other words, he thinks causes he thinks are important should be allowed, while causes he does not think are important - such as worker's rights - should not be.

This is a clear content-based restriction on freedom of speech. And its worth pointing out here that the Speaker has an interest: as de facto Minister for the Parliamentary Service, he is responsible for the wage dispute. So, he is effectively abusing Standing Orders to prevent criticism of his own position.

This stinks. It is dictatorial and authoritarian. But exactly what I've come to expect from National's "feudal overlord" style of government.

National sticks it to the poor again

National has announced its changes to ACC to "restore" financial sustainability (which was never under threat). So, what are they? First, the usual assortment of headline-grabbing but inconsequential changes which will make no real difference (strengthening disentitlements for criminals, and removing entitlements for suicide and self-inflicted injury, even when the latter is inflicted as a result of mental-illness). Secondly, introducing a threshold for hearing loss, effectively allowing employers to gradually deafen their employees and making us wear the cost for their unsafe practices. But most importantly, they plan to reverse the 2008 changes which extended greater (and fairer) cover to part-time, casual and seasonal workers.

The latter is important. A quarter of the workforce is now part-time, casual or seasonal. They pay premiums. But under National, they won't get as much cover, and will have to bear far more of the cost of workplace injury themselves. And they are the people worst-placed to do so - insecure employment arrangements are more common at the bottom end of the labour market, where people are less likely to have savings to fall back on. The upshot: at the bottom end, workplace accidents will drive people deeper into poverty - exactly what the ACC scheme was intended to prevent.

This will decrease compensation costs, meaning reduced premiums to employers. But it will effectively shift the burden of paying for ACC's beaten-up accounting crisis onto the poor. That is not fair and it is not just, and we as a society should not accept it.

A victory for freedom of speech in the UK

Yesterday, UK libel law hit a new low when a law firm representing corporate criminal oil-traders Trafigura (who some may remember were responsible for the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast back in 2006, killing 17 people and injuring over 30,000) sought to prevent the Guardian from reporting on Parliament. The good news is that Trafigura's lawyers have now backed off, following mass violation of their suppression order on the internet. So, freedom of speech appears to win for the moment. But the bad news is that judges are still handing out these "super-injunctions", preventing not just publication of the material in question, but any mention of the case at all.

Open justice in the UK is under threat, and being twisted towards secrecy by the rich and powerful. its a disturbing, authoritarian trend. But hopefully Trafigura's overstepping of the mark yesterday will help put a stop to it.

Bringing on the republic

Republicanism has been a sleeping issue for the past decade or so. Most politicians freely acknowledge that it is "inevitable" that New Zealand will grow up and become a republic, but none seem willing to do anything to bring that about.

Today, that changed, with the drawing of Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill from the ballot. The bill would establish a two-step referendum process on whether to become a republic. In the first referendum, we would be offered a choice of the status quo, a republic with a President elected by a supermajority in Parliament, or a republic with a President directly elected by the people using STV. If any option gets a majority (unlikely, given that republican support will be split on the issue of election), then we go with it. If none does, then there will be a run-off between the two strongest options.

The important thing to note is that this bill makes the absolute minimal changes to create a republic. It would not see a powerful executive President with powers to veto legislation. Instead, if we go republican, the President would have exactly the same powers and be bound by convention in exactly the same way as the present Governor-General. All that would change is their method of appointment and who they work for: us, or a foreign monarch.

The Republican Movement has a guide to the bill here. If you want to show your support, you can join them here.

Drawn: the Republic

A ballot for member's bills was held today, and the following bill was drawn:

  • Head of State Referenda Bill (Keith Locke)

So, we get to have the debate. It will be interesting to see which way people will jump.

There were only two new bills in the ballot this week: John Boscawen's KiwiSaver (Contribution Flexibility) Amendment Bill and Raymond Huo's Local Government (Auckland Council) (Asian Advisory Board) Amendment Bill. While the Greens and ACT are continuing to make full use of their ballot slots, National and Labour continued to underuse theirs, with only 5 and 13 bills (out of a possible 35 and 43) respectively.

The full list of bills is on Red Alert here.

Can the Greens work with the right?

A favoured meme on the right is that the Greens are "too far to the left", and that a true environmental party would lend confidence and supply to National to advance their environmental goals. The underlying assumption is that what stops the two parties from cooperating closely is that most of the Green MPs are lefties. That's part of the picture - though the commitment to "social responsibility" in the form of a "just distribution of social and natural resources" in the Green Charter is more important than the present MPs - but it misses the real problem: National's present anti-environmentalism. There is very little ground for cooperation with a party which wants to dig up our national parks. Or not pull our weight on climate change. Or weaken environmental standards. Or gut the RMA. National is an anti-environmental party which thinks coal is "sexy"; supporting them in power harms the environment rather than helps it. And now that National has revealed its "dig it up and burn it" policies, that cooperation deal the Greens signed back in April (and which I thought was worth trying on the narrow slice of common ground they could find) is looking like a big mistake, simply a chance for National to greenwash itself a little while in reality destroying our environment.

Overseas, its a different story. In Germany, the recent Saarland state elections have resulted in the first ever CDU-FDU-Green coalition (called a "Jamaica" coalition due to the colours of the parties). Partly, this is because of a conservative local Green party, and partly its because the CDU-FDU offered them a very good deal (two important ministries - education and environment/energy/transport - when the Greens have only three MPs). But what ultimately makes it possible is that the German right is simply far greener than its New Zealand equivalent. The coalition won't be trouble free - the Saarland Greens are already coming under fire for a backdown on nuclear energy - but its at least contemplatable. But with National's current anti-environment stance, the same cannot be said of New Zealand.

But will they stop?

The Independent Police Conduct Authority has slammed the police's habit of engaging in high-speed pursuits, arguing that few of them uncover evidence of serious crime, while the risks usually outweigh the benefits. They are recommending clearer and tighter guidelines to officers on when pursuits should be started, most notably by requiring actual evidence of criminal wrongdoing rather than just speculation, and making whether the offender poses any risk to the public (to which the answer is almost always "no") the key consideration.

Police assistant commissioner Viv Rickard says they will accept the recommendations, which is good. But the real question is whether police officers in the field will obey. These people view flight as both suspicious and as a challenge to their power which must be crushed pour encourager les autres (and lest they have to work all the time), and will be reluctant to accept the new policy. And while officers who start dangerous pursuits in violation of the guidelines could be disciplined, we've already seen that the police are less than stellar at policing their own. The upshot: we may be seeing stupid, pointless chases and consequent police-induced carnage for a while yet.

The full IPCA report is here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009



Its not all about wealth

The way the right talks, you would think that government policy was all about wealth and increasing GDP. Today, we have a stark reminder that that is not the case, in the form of the European Quality of Life Index [PDF]. According to the index, the UK has the lowest quality of life in Western Europe - despite having the highest average after-tax family income. Partly this is because of the high cost of living in London, but there are other problems as well: they work longer, die younger, and get fewer holidays. In addition, they spend less on healthcare and education than other nations. And the result is reflected in their emigration figures: In 2006, 41,000 UKanians fled the UK for brighter prospects - the highest number in Europe.

This is where NeoLiberal growth maximisation gets you: a country where no-one wants to live and everyone feels miserable. The lesson for New Zealand ought to be obvious.

About time II

The Auckland Regional Transport Authority has given NZBus until 5pm today to explain when it is going to restore bus services, or it will start the process of cancelling its contract for non-performance. That process will take a while - between two and six months - but faced with a company which simply will not do what it is paid to, it looks like a good option. As for the future, I'd like to see Auckland running its own buses again (they are clearly too important to be left to the market). But if they can't, then I'd hope they include much higher penalties for non-performance in their next contract, to provide a serious incentive to avoid repeating this kind of problem.

Kafkaesque

The Guardian today tries to report that as a result of a court case, it has been forbidden from reporting on certain matters in Parliament:

Today's published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.

This is simply ridiculous. Firstly, there is a longstanding principle in the UK that Parliamentary privilege extends to reporting what happens in the House, and that comments made in Parliament can be reported without fear of contempt. And secondly, all of the above is a matter of public record. For example, anyone can go to the UK Parliament page, look at the future business for the House of Commons, grep the question book for the rest of the week, and learn that on Tuesday Newcastle-under-Lyme MP Paul Farrelly has a series of questions for the Secretary of State for Justice on suppression orders and press freedom, one of which specifically mentions Carter-Ruck solicitors and its corporate criminal client Trafigura.

(Just doing my bit for the Streisand effect...)

People in the UK have a democratic right to know this: to know that the question is being asked, and what, if anything, the response is. But thanks to the UK's repressive libel laws, their democratic right to know what is going on in their own Parliament can be suppressed by anyone rich enough to afford an expensive lawyer. And that is unacceptable in a democracy.

Fortunately, these days we have the internet and a free market in legal jurisdiction. Which makes such orders unenforceable in practice. And the rich and powerful had better start getting used to it.

Does Labour still believe in fairness?

Treasury is having one of its regular ideological burps at the moment, with its Chief Executive touring the country spouting ACT policy, while his minions crank out policy papers calling for regressive tax changes, such as a flat tax or cuts to taxes on dividends, interest and profit (a form of income enjoyed pretty much solely by the rich). Naturally, Labour opposes the plan:

Labour deputy leader Annette King said her party was opposed to a flat tax because it raised questions about what other taxes would have to be raised to cover expenses.
(If you like, you can imagine me theatrically examining the statement to see whether there is anything more, but it doesn't work very well with a computer screen)

Yes, that's it. They oppose Treasury's ideas for massive tax cuts for the rich not because it is a direct attack on progressive taxation, the idea that those who can afford it should pay more (or "from each according to his abilities", to use the deprecated version), not because its just bloody unfair, but because it "raises questions" (to which Treasury has answers, though ones we would not like) about what other taxes would have to be raised to compensate. if this sort of pallid technocratic managerialism is the best the modern Labour party can bloody do, then I'm left wondering why anyone would bother to vote for them. Its enough to make you wonder whether they still believe in fairness at all...