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

Friday, April 23, 2010

Backing down on whaling?

Today the International Whaling Commission released its "compromise" of allowing limited commercial whaling. National had previously backed the move, putting itself out of step with world opinion and the New Zealand public. But instead of announcing their support, they've rejected it. So, does this mean National is backing away from its support for whaling?

Not really. They don't object on principle, but on the basis that the deal isn't good enough. In other words, they're just fine with the commercial slaughter of whales. But they've clearly done some polling and realised that, as they say in the press release, "New Zealanders will not accept this". And that we won't accept a government which supports it either.

Humour: Frank Bainimarama approached to head interim ECan regime

From Rapid Fire:

FOREIGN Minister Murray McCully has allegedly approached Fijian strong man Commodore Frank Bainimarama to head up the sacked Ecan regional council in Canterbury, much to the military dictator's bemusement.

An undercover Rabid Fire reporter definitely not rorting Rabid Fire expenses for a tropical holiday followed McCully to Fiji and somewhat unconvincingly disguised as a member of the Fijian military with a boom mike extending suspiciously from his trousers, recorded the following conversation...

Read the rest here.

It's an apt comparison. The government has just taken away Cantabrians' right to vote because they did not trust the democratic process to deliver the "right" outcome. And they're not going to give it back until 2013, by which time they aim to have given away all the water irreversibly to their cronies. They may not have used guns, but its a coup just the same - and we should not accept it.

Privatising ACC

Radio New Zealand reports that the government's "stocktake" committee into ACC - comprised of NeoLiberals and insurance-industry cronies - is pushing privatising the scheme. As in the 90's this won't be done by selling it outright, but rather by "opening it up to competition" - meaning that the insurance industry will cherry pick the profitable parts of the scheme (and then play their usual games of refusing to pay out on claims - i.e. cheating their customers), and leave the public to pick up the tab on the rest.

There is no benefit to the public from this. An independent report from Price Waterhouse [PDF] a few years ago found the ACC scheme was the most efficient in the world, cost half as much as private insurance in Australia while providing broader coverage, and that there would be no benefits to the public from privatisation. But according to the Prime Minister's old firm Merrill Lynch, they and their Australian insurance industry buddies would make $200 million a year if ACC was privatised. That's $200 million a year which will be ripped straight out of our pockets, paid for in denied claims and poorer service - a wealth transfer from the poor to the rich, National's raison d'être.

We can't let this happen. ACC is a core public service, and National plans to gut it to enrich its mates. You don't get a starker illustration of the inherent corruption of the right than that.


The Electoral Legislation Committee has called for submissions on the Electoral Referendum Bill. Two copies, by Thursday, 10 June 2010, to

Electoral Legislation Committee Secretariat
Parliament Buildings
Or you can use the online form above.

The bill establishes the framework for next year's referendum on MMP. The key point of controversy is the advertising regime in part 3, which sets no spending caps, and does not even require large advertisers to disclose how much they are spending to try and buy the outcome. The regime seems designed to produce a repeat of 1993, when Peter Shirtcliffe spent millions in his efforts to keep FPP - and almost succeeded. But rather than take that as a warning sign, the government seems to want it to happen again.

Submitting is easy, and select committees do pay attention. If you're not sure how to make a submission, Parliament has a handy guide in English and Maori here.

The Clegg effect

Nick Clegg's appearance in the UK's first televised election debate hasn't just resulted in a surge in popularity for the LibDems and a real chance of a hung Parliament (and hence consensus policy and electoral reform) - it's also had another benefit: a surge in voter registrations:

The number of people registering to vote has increased markedly, adding a new generation of voters to the electorate and making the outcome of the election even more volatile, according to a survey of marginal constituencies conducted by the Guardian.

Figures collected from more than 20 of the most marginal areas following Tuesday's deadline to register to vote indicate across-the-board increases in the electorate, compared with the last general election, suggesting that turnout could soar on 6 May.

In one area, the increase is as high as 17%, and there are also indications of a dramatic surge in people requesting postal votes.

And you can see why. Previously, people only had something to vote against: either a corrupt, tired, uninspiring government, or a corrupt, nasty, vicious opposition. Both were fatally tainted by the expenses scandal, and the general attitude was "a plague on both your houses". Now Clegg has given them something to vote for: change - with the added bonus of giving the finger to the two main parties. No wonder they're lining up to vote.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Canterbury's dictators

The government has announced its dictators for Canterbury. Besides Margaret Bazley, the list is mostly grey technocrats (including former finance minister David Caygill), though they do have a dairy farmer and a token environmentalist. Apart from Bazley, all are men. "Jobs for the boys" has a literal meaning under National.

The dictators will be paid $900 each a day, with Bazley getting $1,400. The existing councillors get about $52,000 a year, or about $200 / day. Even allowing for the fact that the number of people being paid has halved, the people of Canterbury will be paying more than twice as much for a group of representatives who were not elected by them, not accountable to them, and have no democratic mandate.

The government has also released the terms of reference [PDF] for the dictatorship. These are fairly broad and vague, with much of the detail to come in a letter later (which hopefully people will OIA), but one bit is of immediate concern:

The Commissioners will be responsible for the timely consideration of applications for amendments to water conservation orders and any applications for new water conservation orders in the Canterbury region.
So, their chief job is to gut existing WCOs and give the water away to farmers. A public asset - water - will be effectively privatised, the farmers will get money, and the people of Canterbury will get cowshit and poisoned drinking water.

The people of Canterbury should not put up with this. It's their water, their environment, and the decisions about it should be made by representatives elected by and accountable to them - not appointed and instructed by the government in Wellington. They should demand elections - and if they are not granted, take their revenge on National at the ballot box in 2011.

Correction: Nope, no token environmentalist. Oh, one of them is involved in the "Water Rights Trust", but they support irrigation projects rather than opposing them.

Climate change: Not enough

Last year, at the disastrous Copenhagen climate change conference, world leaders desperate to save face agreed the "Copenhagen Accord". While it set a goal of limiting climate change to less than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, the Accord included no mechanism to achieve that goal, setting only weak, voluntary emissions reduction targets.

Today, scientists have exposed just how ineffective the Accord is likely to be, with an article in Nature revealing that those targets commit us to at least three degrees of warming. Worse, they're slower than the emissions reductions countries are already achieving. In other words, its a commitment not to lower emissions, but increase them.

This is not good enough. The world wants action, the world needs action. If our so-called "leaders" are not going to deliver that action, it is time we de-elected them and got new ones.

No election in Canterbury

Environment Canterbury is holding its last meeting today, complete with a coffin and black-clad mourners. As I noted last week, they had a chance to throw a final spanner in the government's works, by calling a special election for later this year (an act which would result in the automatic expiry of the dictatorship). Unfortunately they failed. Oh, the council passed the required resolution, 7-3 (who were those 3 dissenters who hate democracy? They must be named and shamed) - but it was ruled out of order by the chair. And so Canterbury's democracy dies with a whimper, replaced by a team of government-appointed dictators who are neither answerable or accountable to the people of Canterbury.

Such governance arrangements have no legitimacy, and the decrees of the Canterbury dictators cannot be regarded as either lawful or binding, any more than those of Fiji's dictator can be. Every decision the dictators make should be reviewed when democracy is restored, and those not confirmed should be overturned immediately. Those who benefit from the dictators' corrupt looting of public water should be put on notice that those benefits will not last, and that any consents purportedly granted will be reviewed and possibly revoked at the first opportunity. The acts of tyrants should not be allowed to stand.

But the task now must be to ensure a swift return to democracy. And the quickest way of doing that is to change the government at the next election. National voted to strip Cantabrians of their local democracy? Vote them out! Otherwise, you'll be waiting until 2013.

Update: According to The Press, the election motion was ruled out "because legislation suspending elections had already been passed". I think Alec Neill needed to read the law. And while they're correct that ECan couldn't enforce it, and that the government could simply legislate to overturn it, they would at least have to go to the bother (and take the PR hit). But it seems Neill would rather surrender to make life easy for his National Party mates than obey his constituents and stand up for democracy.


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

  • Tariff Act Repeal Bill (Roger Douglas)
  • Crown Minerals (Protection of Public Conservation Land Listed in the Fourth Schedule) Amendment Bill (Metiria Turei)
  • Goods and Services Tax (Exemption of Healthy Food) Amendment Bill (Rahui Katene)

So, it looks like the government is going to have to debate mining in national parks after all.

All the bills have been previously covered in "in the ballot", Douglas's one here, Turei's one here, and Katene's one here. There were four new bills this week, the most interesting of which looks to be Hone Harawira's Parliamentary Commissioner for the Treaty of Waitangi Bill (which I assume establishes an office like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to be an independent reporter on Treaty issues - a very good idea). Hopefully I'll be able to cover it (and some other bills) in an "In the ballot" post later today.

Voting down the republic

Tonight, the New Zealand Parliament debated a republic for the first time, in the form of Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill. The bill would have established a process by which the people of New Zealand could have their say on our constitutional future, through a two-stage referendum process. Unfortunately, Parliament voted it down, 68 - 53.

The debate is up on In the House. There are some good speeches there, on how a republic would better reflect our national identity as a diverse, egalitarian, democratic nation, on how the monarchy is discriminatory and does not accord with New Zealand values, and on how the people should be allowed to have their say. And then there are the speeches from National MPs, who were whipped into opposing the bill, and whose best argument against it was that a debate on the republic would be a distraction from the issues they wanted to talk about. But to put it bluntly, that is not their decision to make. The constitution belongs to the people, not to MPs, and they should be enabling us to discuss it. By standing in the way of such a discussion, the National party has marked itself as opposed to democracy. But then, we already knew that, didn't we?

While the bill was defeated tonight, the issue is not going to go away. Its an issue of identity, about who we are as a nation, and thus a generational issue. Pretty much every young MP who entered the House last election was a republican, and that trend is only going to get stronger. Its been a long time since New Zealanders were raised on imperialism, longer still since we thought of Britain as "home" or ourselves as British. The generations who believe those things are withering and dying by the day, and their toxic memes are dying with them. The only question is how long their dead hands will maintain a death grip on our future.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


The Attorney-General has just tabled a report in parliament declaring Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill to be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act.

I have not seen the report itself yet, but I have been told that the problem is with s32 of the bill, which requires that

The referendum roll used for the second referendum must be the same as that used for the first referendum, without any updating or modification.
This is clearly inconsistent with the right to vote affirmed in the BORA, and I'm surprised Locke put it in. At the same time, its also easily fixable - just delete the clause. And if the bill makes it to select committee, I'd expect them to do just that.

Update: The report is up here [PDF]. I was wrong - it doesn't focus on the right to vote (which, as I should have remembered, is narrowly focused on general elections), but instead on the right to be free of discrimination. By requiring that the rolls be identical, the bill discriminates against those who turn 18 between the two referenda on the basis of their age. Interestingly, the report highlights Article 25 of the ICCPR in stressing the disadvantage caused - which is odd given that the Attorney-General completely ignored it in the case of ECan.


Milena Popova on Why Content Is a Public Good. The basic analysis - that technology has made digital content, such as music, TV, and movies, both non-rival and non-excludable, and hence a classic example of what economists term a public good - is blindingly obvious when you think about it, and I'm surprised no-one has said it earlier. But what it means is that the content industry as we know it is dead, their business model deprecated.

The problem then is how we get that content in future. As the Wiki article points out, there are other ways (subscription and government funding being the two obvious ones). But neither is consistent with the survival of the present content industry. All those leeching music industry middlemen are going to be looking for new jobs in the long term.

All about the water

The Press this morning has an important story about the government's abolition of democracy in Canterbury. Papers released to Forest & Bird under the OIA show that Agriculture Minister David Carter was scheming to steal Canterbury's water for his farmer mates long before ECan was reviewed:

A briefing paper to Carter in December last year said the Rakaia WCO set minimum flow and abstraction limits "that restrict the range of options available to resource management decision-makers and water users".

Three "key blockages to achieving the Government's objective" were the uncertain planning framework, the Rakaia WCO and the conditions on resource consents.

"An approach to unlocking irrigation's potential contribution to economic growth in Mid-Canterbury will need to address all three key blockages," the briefing said. Ad Feedback

A December 4 memo to Carter provided "an update on our progress in developing robust advice about how the Rakaia water-conservation order could be varied in order to facilitate irrigation development in Mid-Canterbury".

A December 21 briefing said the Rakaia River was less well-developed than the Rangitata River and "presents an opportunity for enhanced irrigation development".

The briefing said the irrigation storage capacity of Lake Coleridge [which is subject to a Water Conservation Order - I/S] was "key to unlocking the potential contribution of irrigation to economic growth within central Canterbury".

The Canterbury dictatorship not only removes a democratic roadblock to this plan, it has also granted the Minister for the Environment new powers to amend WCOs when the effect is "minor". What counts as "minor" of course will depend on how much money farmers make out of it. And so we will have Water Conservation Orders which do not conserve, but rather enable the further destruction of rivers by Canterbury's rapacious farmers.

This is clear evidence that the government has acted in bad faith. The removal of ECan's elected members was never about governance; it was always about finding a way to steal Canterbury's water and give it to National's donors. If this happened in the third world, we'd call it what it is: a corrupt looting of the state.

Justice for disappearance

Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina's military junta waged a campaign of violence against dissidents, students, and unionists known as the "Dirty War". Thousands were disappeared, tortured and murdered by government death squads, their bodies flung from the backs of planes over the Atlantic Ocean to prevent any evidence from coming to light. Today, former dictator Reynaldo Bignone and six accomplices were sentenced to 25 years imprisonment on 56 charges of murder, torture, and kidnapping. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the crimes against humanity committed during that era - estimates of the death toll range from ten to thirty thousand - but one provable case is all it takes. These human rights abusers will now be in jail for the rest of their natural lives, condemned by the apparatus of the democratic state they tried to strangle. It may have been slow in coming, but there is finally some justice for the disappeared.

(The reason for the delay? Because the first post-junta government granted the military an amnesty for their crimes. It took until 2003 for the laws to be repealed, and 2005 for the courts to declare that they had absolutely no effect and that prosecutions could begin. Voreqe Bainimarama take note!)

Member's Day?

Today is a member's Day, assuming the government doesn't pull urgency to squash it. And thanks to the new sessional order expanding the ballot, it looks like there's some real business to debate.

First up is Paul Quinn's execrable Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill, which would strip anyone in jail of the vote (currently only those serving a sentence of three or more years - i.e. those whose jail term means they will miss an election if it was served in full - are denied the vote). The Attorney-General has declared that this bill violates the Bill of Rights Act, so it will be interesting to see whether he, and the rest of National, vote for it or give it the shredding it deserves.

Second there is Tau Henare's bill on requiring a secret ballot for strikes. The unions all support this (since they do it anyway), and I expect it to go to committee without any controversy.

Thirdly, there is Roger Douglas' futile tilt at the windmill of restoring youth rates. National have already said they'll vote against this, so if they keep their word, it is going down. Meanwhile, I'm struck by the inconsistency between ACT's forceful "one law for all" rhetoric on the topic of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the House yesterday, and this bill. "One law for all - except for young people"? Just another example of ACT's deep hypocrisy on human rights, I think.

Finally, if all goes well, we might finally get to start debating the most important member's bill of the term: Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill. This will be the first time the New Zealand Parliament has formally debated republicanism, and it will not be the last. Now the discussion has been opened, the topic is not going to go away. The bill is highly unlikely to be voted on tonight, but Keith will probably get his opening speech in. Tune in around 9:45 to see.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Candle ICT: Racists

The Human Rights Act absolutely prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in employment. It is illegal to refuse to offer someone a job on the basis of their race, colour, or ethnic or national origins. It is illegal to even ask an applicant for details which might indicate an intention to do so. Because of this, all newspapers now carry prominent notices in their employment sections warning that they will not accept advertisements which appear to seek to employ people only of a certain race or gender.

So I was quite surprised to be pointed at this ad from Candle ICT on TradeMe, which clearly and repeatedly states that the position is open only to Maori:

As part of an initiative to kick-start the IT careers of Maori graduates, we are seeking up to 30 graduates to take part in an internship project which will see you learning the in's and out's of being a successful business analyst.


These internships are open to all Maori graduates nationwide with training being held in Wellington and Auckland...

(Image here in case they take it down).

This indicates a clear intent to discriminate on the basis of race. It would not be acceptable to advertise a position as open only to Pakeha, and it is not acceptable to advertise a position as open only to Maori. Any racial requirement in employment is unlawful discrimination.

This isn't an inadvertent mistake; Candle is an established agency and has been around more than long enough to understand the law. They have clearly chosen to ignore it. its time for the Human Rights Commission to step in and inform them that racial discrimination is not acceptable in New Zealand.

Update: Several readers have pointed me at s73 of the Human Rights Act, which permits measures "in good faith for the purpose of assisting or advancing persons or groups of persons" who are victims of discrimination. So, the ad might not be illegal. But in the absence of a specific statement in the ad or from Candle, I don't think we can give them the benefit of the doubt.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

This morning, the government announced its support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Good. As a country which supposedly supports indigenous rights, and which thinks of itself as having got its relationship with Māori right, we should have been supporting it all along. Labour's 2007 refusal to support it was utterly shameful, and a black mark on that party's history.

Some think the Declaration is a racist document which grants special rights to people on the basis of their ethnicity. This is bullshit. The rights affirmed in the Declaration - rights to life, non-discrimination, self-determination, language, culture etc - are primarily reaffirmations of rights already affirmed in other international legal instruments such as the UDHR, ICCPR and ICESCR. In most cases, these rights are clarified to give guidance on their implementation in the specific context of indigenous peoples, particularly in light of their past treatment. Even the "new" collective rights against genocide, dispossession, assimilation, forced integration and relocation fall into this category - they already exist in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In other words, what the Declaration affirms is the same damn rights everyone else has. And like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, its necessary precisely because those rights have been ignored and violated so often in the past.

Even the "controversial" Article 26, which affirms the right of indigenous peoples to retain their land, falls into this category, in that Article 17 of the UDHR affirms a right to own property and not to be arbitrarily deprived of it. But beyond that, this article is what the entire Treaty process has been about: coming to terms with the fact that we stole this country from its rightful owners, and doing what we can to make recompense for it. That has been a core principle of Treaty policy for 30 years now, and we should be upholding and promoting it on the international stage - not denying it.

(As an aside, anyone else find it ironic that ACT - the party of propertarians - thinks affirming the right of Māori to their property is wrong? I guess they really just are the party of Pakeha racists then...)

What should be controversial about the Declaration is not that we are supporting it, but the manner in which National has gone about it: flying a Minister to New York in the dead of night, making no mention of the fact in their media briefings, expunging it from the Minister's official diary (which, BTW, probably violates the Public Records Act, not to mention the spirit of the OIA. Someone should be prosecuted there). This extraordinary secrecy seems to have been aimed at one of the government's own support parties, who went nuclear in the House today and accused them of breaking their coalition agreement. It was disrespectful and dishonest.

Also dishonest are John Key's statements about what the declaration commits us to. As a small country with a mana-based foreign policy, we pride ourselves on our support for international law and on keeping our word. We make a point of not signing up to things unless we plan to implement them. But despite having his Minister of Māori Affairs announce our support for the Declaration, Key was today trying to argue that it was purely aspirational and that it meant nothing as it was non-binding. This is technically correct - its only a declaration, not a treaty, and even the latter have no effect unless implemented in New Zealand law - but at the same time it is grossly dishonest and two faced to say you support something in the morning and effectively denounce it that same afternoon.

Our government should stand by its public statements. If it did not intend to uphold the Declaration, then it should not have announced its support for it. It is that simple. Yes, such two-faced dishonesty is par for the course in the UN, as any student of UN human rights treaties would know. But we're meant to be better than that. Sinking to the level of dishonesty of China and Libya degrades us as a nation, and undermines the mana on which our entire foreign policy is based. And that is hugely damaging to our country in the long run.

This looks bad

Nick Smith has five brothers in the construction industry. One of them was being prosecuted by Environment Canterbury for repeated and consistent violations of the RMA. And now Smith is sacking ECan. Looks bad, doesn't it?

Compensation for stop and search

In 2007, UK comedian Mark Thomas was stopped and searched outside an arms fair under anti-terrorist law. The reason for the search? He looked "over-confident" at a demonstration. He was "believed to be an influential individual" who had addressed the crowd and "appeared to know what [he was] talking about". These characteristics clearly marked him out as a potentially dangerous terrorist who could be carrying weapons, and as a result he was detained and searched.

Today, Thomas won compensation of £1,200 - £100 per minute - for false imprisonment and violation of his right to be free of arbitrary search and seizure. Its good news, but its worth remembering that over 100,000 people were subjected to such searches in 2008, almost all on similarly tenuous grounds. Those people's rights have also been violated, and the government should compensate them too. But beyond that, it should repeal the law which provides for such unreasonable searches, because it is clear that they are a widespread and systematic violation of people's rights.


The Herald and Stuff both have stories this morning about TradeMe entrepreneur Sam Morgan complaining about the unfairness of the tax system. The absence of a capital gains tax means he was not taxed on the sale of his company, while his "lack of a proper job" and donations to his charitable trust mean that he pays no income tax. Morgan calls this unfair, and he's right (what's even more unfair is that the government plans to reward people like him with big tax cuts). But having said that its not right, he then says "but what am I supposed to do?"

Here's a suggestion: he could stop dodging his taxes. Because contrary to Morgan's implication, that situation where he pays no tax has not arisen naturally. It is the result of deliberate measures taken by his accountant(s) - such as those charitable donations he mentions - to ensure that he pays nothing to the state on his income. If he thinks that's wrong, he should put his money where his mouth is, and instruct his accountant(s) to ensure he pays his fair share. It's that simple.

Keep the MacKenzie brown!

The government is at it again. Having promised no privatisation,1 they're planning to give away thousands of hectares of land in the MacKenzie Country so it can be irrigated - in the process threatening rare plant and lizard species as well as the MacKenzie's unique landscape.

The land is being given away under the tenure review process, which sees holders of high country leases given freehold title in exchange for surrendering the lease on part of the land. This highly contentious process has seen vast swathes of crown land in the South Island privatised, then the farmers make out like bandits from subdivision, particularly around lakes and rivers. The latter has been so contentious that the previous Labour government suspended tenure review in such areas - but National has restarting it, and in this case is planning to give away thousands of hectares of land along the shores of Lake Pukaki. The leaseholders promise they will not subdivide - but such promises cannot be trusted, and elsewhere they have inevitably led to the same result of subdivision, development, and the restriction of public access (meanwhile, the farmers laugh all the way to the Gold Coast at having suckered us again).

But in addition to the threat of development, there's also the threat of irrigation. The lease-holders are planning to do this, calling the area a "desert" which needs to be irrigated if anything is to be done with it. But where they see a desert, I see one of New Zealand's most unique landscapes, home to its own unique dryland ecosystem. Irrigation will destroy that landscape, and destroy that ecosystem, forever. It will be replaced with a monoculture of cows, and Lake Pukaki - one of our purest lakes - will fill up with fertiliser runoff and cowshit. Farmers will get rich - but at the cost of the government, the environment, and the rest of New Zealand, who will no longer be able to visit and enjoy the emptiness and aridness of the Mackenzie country.

We cannot let this happen. The MacKenzie country is a unique landscape which should be protected for the use and enjoyment of all New Zealanders, both now and in the future. Rather than carving it up, the government should halt the tenure review process, and instead use its land in the area to create a drylands park. We should keep the Mackenzie brown, not green.

1 Does not include all privatisation; promise does not apply after first term in office.

"Reform" that isn't

When is a democracy not a democracy? When its the UK, of course! In addition to having an unfair electoral system, the UK also suffers from having the House of Lords. A relic of feudalism, the Lords consists of a bunch of unelected peers, and handful of hereditary landowners, and a clique of Anglican Bishops appointed because of their religion. None of its members are elected. But despite this total lack of any democratic mandate, it has acted as a consistent roadblock to the policies of the government of the day. Sometimes, this has been for the better - but it is unacceptable on principle to any democrat. Laws should be made by elected representatives - not unelected cronies accountable to no-one.

Since 1997, the UK Labour Party has been promising reform, but they have never delivered. Since they're in the middle of an election campaign, they're promising it again - and have leaked their plans. But those plans are somewhat underwhelming. The centrepiece of their "bold" plan? Cutting the number of unelected Bishops from 24 to 12. So, there will still be unelected bigots in the House. Meanwhile, just two-thirds of the House would be elected - and those for such a long term (15 years) that they might as well be appointed anyway. This is "reform" so token as to not be worthy of the name. It doesn't promise change, but simply more of the same.

The UK is a unitary (as opposed to federal) state. There are no separate regional interests that need to be represented. It does not need an upper house. The only reform the House of Lords needs is abolition.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Gambling with their passengers lives

Iceland's revenge has been smothering Europe for almost a week now, and the airline industry is reportedly losing $280 million a day. Naturally, they're keen to stop losing money, so today saw some carefully staged test flights, followed by stock declarations that the planes were not damaged and everything was fine. The message is clear: the European airline industry wants to be rid of "silly" flight restrictions.

But this is a real problem - take a look at these photos of what the ash did to the innards of a Finnish airforce jet's engines. If they start flying again, the risks of an accident will significantly increase. The airlines don't care about that, because they're insured - insured for the cost of replacing the plane, and insured for the cost of compensating the relatives of dead passengers. And so they're willing to gamble with their passenger's lives in order to avoid going out of business.

Preventing this sort of corporate sociopathy is exactly why we have government.

The UK's unfair electoral system

A YouGov poll today has put the LibDems in the lead in the UK election race, 1% ahead of the Tories. But plugging these numbers into the Swingometer gives absolutely absurd results:

Party% VoteSeats% Seats
Liberal Democrats3313220.3
Others & NI9324.9

That's right: the LibDems win a hundred fewer seats than the Tories, despite leading them by 1%. Meanwhile, Labour gets the most seats, despite trailing well behind in third place.

This is utterly perverse, and should be unacceptable in a real democracy. No government elected by such a system can have any legitimacy. If the election result is anything like this poll, then the only fair outcome is a temporary coalition to implement electoral reform, followed by a second election under a new, fair system.

No three strikes in ACTA?

According to Computerworld this morning, a three strikes regime leading to disconnection has been removed from the ACTA treaty. This is good news if its true, but it raises the question: why is New Zealand implementing one then? The Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Bill currently before the House includes just such a regime, partially justified by the need to have a domestic legal regime consistent with ACTA (see the Regulatory Impact Statement [PDF], p. 7). But if ACTA isn't going to include such a regime, then that "justification" disappears.

Given that the bill doesn't do anything other than create a three strikes regime, then if Computerworld's report is true, it should be withdrawn. And if the government wants to come up with a replacement, it should ensure that it is actually proportionate to the harm done (unlike their current proposal), and that it considers the very serious human rights implications of limiting internet access in modern society (something our pre-computer-age Attorney General does not seem to understand).

This stinks

The Sunday Star-Times yesterday had a disturbing story about EECA's Renewable Heating for Schools project. The project replaces dirty coal-fired school boilers with clean wood-pellet ones, in an effort to improve efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the person administering the scheme had a substantial shareholding in a company which installed such boilers - which just happened 6 of the 7 contracts [Link to PressDisplay because the story isn't on Stuff yet]:

Maharaj was also a director and 10% shareholder of Living Energy, a company he co-founded in 2003 to provide wood-fired heating systems to the private and public sectors. Although he resigned his directorship in January 2007, Maharaj maintained his shareholding in the company.

According to its website, Living Energy has since installed six of the seven new wood-chip boilers funded under the EECA scheme – contracts worth about $2m.

EECA chief executive Mike Underhill told the Star-Times Maharaj had disclosed his interest in Living Energy at the time of his appointment, but was nevertheless allowed to lead the team administering the grants and to review proposals from rival firms.

This seems to have been the result of a screwup, and when EECA noticed, they ended his involvement and investigated his past deals - which found "no evidence to indicate that appointment of the contractors and the allocation of the schools to the appointed contractors was influenced by the identified conflict of interest". That may in fact have been the case, but the problem is that no-one will believe it (after all, "independent" business consultants say whatever you pay them to say, and everyone knows it). It is not enough for everything to be above-board - everything must be seen to be above-board. And EECA has failed spectacularly on that measure.

But they're not the only ones. It ought to be obvious to anyone with any understanding of the above principle that in a case like this, mere disclosure of a conflict is not enough. An ethical person in Maharaj's position should have either taken positive steps to eliminate the conflict, or said "I can not do this". He did neither. I for one expect higher standards from our public service.

New Fisk

'I listen as a lost people tell of their woes in a kind of trance'

Saturday, April 17, 2010

No justice in China

In 2008, Lin Xiuying's daughter died after being gang-raped. The police swiftly closed the investigation, saying "nothing to see here, move along". So she turned to the internet, posting videos to try and pressure the police to re-open the case. Today, three people who had helped her do that were jailed:

Three men have been jailed in China's Fujian province after posting material online on behalf of a woman trying to investigate her daughter's death.

Fan Yanqiong, Wu Huaying and You Jingyou were found guilty of slander and harming state interests, in a trial which attracted protests outside court.

They had posted videos online in which the woman said her daughter died after being raped by thugs linked to police.

The police had said the woman died due to complications with a pregnancy.

This is absolutely appalling, and one thing is clear: there is no justice in China.

Nick Clegg's Peter Dunne moment?

During the 2002 election campaign, United Future leader Peter Dunne was allowed to participate in a televised leaders debate for the first time - and came across as a nice, reasonable guy (no-one then knew about his fundie Christian friends). The result was a boost in United Future's support from almost nothing to 6.7%, giving the party a strong position in Parliament and making it Labour's preferred support partner when the time came to negotiate confidence and supply.

Something similar just seems to have happened to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in the UK. That country has just had its first ever televised election debate (yes, they're in the democratic stone age. But then, we knew that). Clegg was invited to appear alongside Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Tory leader David Cameron - and came across as a nice, reasonable guy. "I agree with Nick" was the phrase of the evening. The polls have spiked as a result, with one showing a 14% gain for the LibDems among debate viewers. Only a quarter of voters watched the debate, but the result has been a significant boost in support for the LibDems, and it may increase further with subsequent debate coverage.

Unfortunately, the LibDems have a significant barrier to overcome: the UK's unfair electoral system. In the last election, they won less than half the seats they were entitled to (9.6% of the seats for 22% of the vote) - and that was a good result; in the past they've won as few as 3.5% of the seats for over 25% of the vote. Still, with their polling on the rise, and a high likelihood of a hung Parliament, perhaps they might be able to do something about that...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Climate change: The latest inventory and the net position

The Ministry for the Environment released its latest inventory report [PDF] today. The headline data is shown in the graph below (stolen from p. 19) :

Gross emissions fell for the second year in a row, from 75.55 to 74.66 MTCO2-e, mostly as a result of lower agricultural emissions due to drought (though energy-sector emissions rose by a million tons due to a dry winter that year, which counteracted the drop). As for the net figure, that 10 million ton drop can be attributed to one thing: the cessation of deforestation due to the introduction of the ETS. Figure 10.3.6 on p2091 shows how damaging the government's delay was to our emissions position: the failure to make forest-owners pay for deforestation sparked a chainsaw massacre and caused about 30 million tons worth of emissions. That's about 600 million dollars worth at today's prices, and it can be laid squarely at the feet of Peter Dunne and the National Party, who were then in full denialist mode and opposed any action on climate change.

The government also released its annual net position report, in which they predict a surplus of 11.4 million tons over the Kyoto period. That "surplus" is partly an artefact of methodological changes to the way we calculate net removals from forests, which have effectively scammed us an extra 5 million tons a year. But its also a result of the ETS, which (from the press release) saves us an estimated 33 million tons over CP1 (and most of that comes from limiting deforestation).

What this reinforces is how central forestry is to NZ's climate change policy. Make the electricity sector and industrial polluters pay for their carbon, and you'll restrict growth, maybe even shave a few percent. Hiking petrol prices to record highs might save a few more. But if you stop people from cutting down trees, you get real change. Now, if only we can get people planting them as well...

1 Yes, it's labelled "grasslands". This includes forests converted to grasslands.


Crooked Timber's John Holbo on Libertarianism, Property Rights and Self-Ownership, which argues that Libertarians' focus on property and its privileging over (or conflation with) liberty gives you something that looks an awful lot like feudalism. Similarly, their stunted definition of freedom results in odd things such as slaves being "free" even when subjected to the lash, and women and non-whites being free even when subjected to widespread discrimination and victimisation, insofar as such treatment comes from society rather than the state. Whatever you call that, it isn't freedom.

ECan: The people are angry II

Another night, another (according to Russel Norman's twitter feed) packed out public meeting in Christchurch about the abolition of their local democracy. People in New Zealand are generally quite politically inactive, and when a government policy is resulting in meetings like this, they should be very afraid. At this rate, National is going to be met on the campaign trail next year by a mob with torches and pitchforks.

There is however still space for them to back down. While ECan's councillors are giving their valedictories, legally they haven't been sacked yet. That doesn't happen until "replacement day", which is a date set by the government by a Gazette notice. While the government is talking about 1 May, no such notice has been issued yet (at least according to the Gazette online, which seems to be up to date). While the Minister must set a date, they could simply not set one for the time being, subject ECan to intensive monitoring, and use the hanging threat of replacement as an incentive for better performance. The problem then is that thanks to sloppy drafting, the cancellation of this years elections is not contingent on replacement - meaning the current ECan councillors would continue in office until 2013 or replacement (unless, I suppose, they called a special election themselves, which they can still do - and in fact could do on their last day in office as a final "fuck you" to the government).

Actually, looking at that further, the ECan Act only cancels the regular 2010 election, and has no effect on any other election. So, if before it left office ECan called a special election for, say, July, it would proceed as normal - triggering resumption day and the automatic expiry of the dictatorship (and in such a case, the new councillors would hold office until 2013).

ECan should do this. They should fight for the democratic rights of the people they represent. Anything less is chickenshit.

New Fisk

Hizbollah's silence over Scuds speaks volumes to Israel

Democracy comes to Tonga

Tonga's Legislative Assembly has passed a political reform package, increasing the number of people's representatives to 17. While electorate boundaries are still to be set (and are an issue of some debate), the key change has been made: representatives of the people will hold a clear majority in the next Tongan Parliament.

Unfortunately, the government has been doing all it can to try and limit that. Their latest move was an attempt to raise the non-refundable deposit to stand for election to US$500. In a country with an average income of only T$3,376, or US$1,790, that is a massive amount, and was a clear attempt to restrict elections to a contest among the wealthy elite. They didn't succeed, but were still able to raise it to US$200 - more than 10% of the average income, which will probably be enough to have the desired effect (though parties will be able to fundraise to pay it). Lowering it to ensure that everyone can contest elections should be among the first priorities of the new Parliament.

(Deposits are useful to limit the electoral contest only to "serious" candidates, but the aim should be to make people decide whether they really want to go through with it, not to impose a financial barrier to participation. In New Zealand, the deposit is $300 - not a token amount, but at the same time not beyond the means of most people, let alone a substantial fraction of people's annual incomes. You have to stop and think, but you don't have to be rich. It could probably achieve the same goal while being lower - $100 is most people's stop and think limit - but it probably couldn't go much higher without beginning to pose problems).

The next step for Tonga is elections in November, which will hopefully deliver a solid majority of - and government to - pro-democracy MPs. And then the real work of unravelling the damage done by monarchical cronyism will begin.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

First prisons, now schools

Hot on the heels of its decision to build a private prison, the government is now planning on using PPPs for schools. Uunfortunately the media reports are unclear about whether the government will merely be using the PPP to fund construction (in which case it will effectively be a school run in rented facilities, which is not a big deal in principle) or whether a private company will be operating it as well. Support for the latter is given by Bill English's statement that

it will be a "worthwhile experiment" to allow one where the people who built the school are responsible for its operation, English said.
But of course we already have such experiments, in the form of private schools. So what does English think we would learn from such an "experiment"? How much excess profit a private operator can gouge out of the state through a poorly-negotiated, badly-worded contract? That's not an experiment I think is worth performing.

Tokelau shames us again

Tokelau has declared its exclusive economic zone to be a whale sanctuary. This brings the number of whale sanctuaries in the South Pacific to eleven, covering most of the area's ocean:

(Key: Green = whale sanctuary, blue = whales protected, but no explicit sanctuary. List of countries from here; map based on this)

Not a lot of space for the Japanese to murder whales there, is there?

Interestingly, MFAT is getting grumpy about this. Tokelau is an NZ dependency, and MFAT seems to think the move should have been discussed with them. But this is essentially an internal matter of fisheries regulation, something Tokelau has power over, rather than one of foreign policy. And in any case, it would be wrong of MFAT to overturn the decisions of Tokelau's democratically elected government, just as it would be wrong for our foreign monarch to veto those of our elected Parliament.

More evidence that private prisons are a scam

Yesterday, the government announced plans to tender for a private company to build a new private prison in South Auckland. The government's argument for this is that private prisons are cheaper. Today, the Herald reports a new study of Florida's private prisons has found no evidence that that is the case.

The actual report - Are Florida's Private Prisons Keeping Their Promises? by the Florida Centre for Fiscal and Economic Policy - is here [PDF]. It notes that while there is a difference in headline annual incarceration costs - $17,216 for a private prison vs $18,980 for a public facility - this cost is largely the result of private prisons being newer and handling lower-security inmates. If the government built a new low-security prison, it would receive those "savings" too. Beyond that, it finds that the procurement process means that it is very difficult to determine what, if any, savings are being delivered; there are no actual costs computed for parts of the public system, so they just can't tell if the legally required 7% saving is being delivered or not.

In addition to that, the report finds no evidence that private prisons reduce recidivism. According to a 2003 report from the Florida Department of Corrections, there were "no statistically significant differences in recidivism rates were found between public and private inmate groups" and "no empirical justification for the policy argument that private prisons reduce recidivism better than public prisons". So much for the government's second argument.

These findings are consistent with those for PPP projects in general. The CTU yesterday highlighted a study by the Independent in the UK, which found that the UK government was massively overpaying for assets through the Public Finance Initiative, paying £262 billion for assets with a capital value of only £55 billion. PFI investors are making out like bandits, making huge (17 to 23 percent) rates of return, by funding projects which could have been built cheaper with public money. Rather than saving money, PPPs are simply wasteful exercises in corporate welfare, another way of looting the state and transferring wealth from the many to the few. And rather than expanding such arrangements to schools and hospitals, we should be banning them - because in every case, the public is the loser.

Monitoring Canada's Access to Information Act

A reader pointed me at a report from the Canadian Information Commissioner on Systemic Issues Affecting Access to Information in Canada [PDF, large]. In response to complaints of continual delays and poor implementation of the Act, the Information Commissioner has started monitoring and preparing report cards on individual departments. This year, they assessed 24 agencies, responsible for 88% of all AIA requests filed. The headline result? None of them had an average response time within the statutory 30-day limit. Overall, just 57% of requests are processed within the statutory time limit. The government is basically ignoring its own law.

The report includes a report card for each department, showing the number of requests it processed, the "deemed refusal rate" (number not processed within 30 days, average response time, details on complaints, and so forth. Much of this is possible because departments are required to annually report these statistics - which is something we should do here. It also reports on the leadership and administrative structures of agencies, which in some cases has produced a dramatic turnaround. This reporting has produced change - the Department of Justice has dropped its deemed refusal rate from 40% to 4% and improved its rating from "F" to "A" in response to public scrutiny of its record. But in other cases - e.g. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, which has a deemed refusal rate of 60% and an average response time of 160 days - it doesn't seem to be doing much. In these cases, political leadership is required to make the public service comply with the law.

It would be interesting to see similar statistics for New Zealand. Unfortunately, the Ombudsmen's office is a neutral arbiter rather than a monitoring body, so there's no centralised collection. But departments will be collecting statistics internally, which means they can be requested. Maybe I'll give it a go.

ECan: The people are angry

Last night, the Greens organised a public meeting to discuss the government's abolition of democracy in Canterbury. They were expecting about a hundred people, but more than three hundred turned up, overflowing the venue and resulting in a second, impromptu, meeting being held on the footpath outside. People were willing to stand around in the cold of an autumn Christchurch night to hear about this issue, and have their say on it. People don't do that when they're happy.

Labour's Lianne Dalziel has her report of the meeting here.

If you're in Christchurch, angry, and want to do something about the government's seizure of Canterbury's water, there's another meeting at the Great Hall in the Arts Centre tonight:

When: 19:30 - 21:30, Thursday 15 April
Where: Great Hall, Arts Centre

Be there, and show your anger.

Update: More from Sue Kedgley here.