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Friday, October 29, 2010



Earning that reputation VI

This year, pushed by scandals overseas, we've seen an unprecedented opening of Parliament's books, with MP's accommodation and travel expenses being revealed for the first time. This has been uncomfortable for several MPs, as the public has raised questions about their level of spending, or the discrepancies between their public statements and their private behaviour. So Lockwood Smith has stepped in to spare them such discomfort in the future, by slamming the door on transparency:

Parliament's Speaker has introduced new rules preventing public disclosure of individual MPs' spending on tax-payer funded overseas jaunts.

The change mean trips like those taken by Rodney Hide and his partner to Hawaii and through Europe last year are now secret.

Mr Hide admitted at the time that he made a mistake, but Speaker Lockwood Smith today said the matter was private and should never have been made known to the public.

"It is taken out of members' salaries and it is private," Dr Smith said.

"It is not a public expense, it is a private matter."

Bullshit. This is our money they're spending, and we have a right to know how it is spent so that we can judge whether it is spent well. And what we've seen in the past is that it is often not spent well. Keeping it secret seems to be exactly the wrong solution to this - unless you're an MP wanting a taxpayer-funded overseas holiday, I guess.

With this move, Smith has done his bit to ensure that MPs continue to be held in contempt by the public. If MPs don't want to be tarred as corrupt and self-serving, then they need to speak up for transparency and denounce him. Otherwise, they will have again earned their reputation, and have no-one to blame but themselves.

The fastest legislature in the west strikes again

Back in 1979, in his book Unbridled Power, then-law lecturer Geoffrey Palmer infamously called the New Zealand Parliament "the fastest legislature in the west". The lack of checks and balances around the use of urgency allowed a law to go from an idea in the mind of a Minister to the law of the land in 24 hours.

We've just had a potent demonstration that Palmer was right, in the form of the Hobbit Enabling Act. The bill made far-reaching changes to industrial relations law for workers involved in film and video game production, effectively stripping them of all employment rights. It was drafted on Wednesday night, introduced at 15:00 Thursday, rammed through all stages under urgency, and passed just before 13:00 today.

This isn't the first time National has done this to us. This time last year, National had rammed through nine controversial policy bills by abusing urgency in this fashion. They had forced low-paid workers into a 90-day fire at will period, amended campaign finance rules to advantage themselves, removed bail rights, and forced the SuperCity upon Auckland, all without any chance for the public to consider these changes, let alone have a say on them. Since then, they've also abolished democracy in Canterbury, allowed the police to make laws as well as enforce them, exempted Corrections from the RMA to allow them to house prisoners in substandard conditions, and made Gerry Brownlee a dictator with powers to amend any law as he sees fit.

This has to stop. There is occasional need for urgency powers. But they do not exist to allow the government of the day to inflict their policies by surprise on the public. National is using them to systematically abuse our democracy, and us, its citizens. We should not tolerate it any longer.

Monstrous

Reasons I do not want to go to Palmerston North Hospital #57: because they stick "do not resuscitate" orders on people without their consent:

An 85-year-old woman who wants a chance at life, no matter what, was shocked to find a not-for-resuscitation order placed on her file at Palmerston North Hospital's emergency department.

Her son, Tim Wallace, is angry the order was filled out by a doctor without consulting him, as her enduring power of attorney, or his mother, who was too sick to speak for herself when admitted. Mr Wallace has laid a formal complaint with MidCentral Health, which has launched an investigation.

It is unclear whether this was done by the hospital, or the rest home the woman was living at, but either way it is utterly monstrous. Respect for personal autonomy means not just respecting people's right to die, but also their right to live. And this was a person who had expressed very clearly a desire to cling on for every last moment. That decision should not be overridden by a doctor, or anyone else for that matter. And it certainly shouldn't be overridden by any employee of a body which has a clear financial incentive to minimise its cost of care.

MidCentral Health is investigating, but if they find who is responsible they're likely to treat it as an employment issue or a medical disciplinary offence. Its not. Instead, what we're looking at here is attempted murder, and it should be prosecuted as such.

What the Hobbit Enabling Act means

Over on the Hand Mirror, Maia points out what the Hobbit Enabling Act really means: protecting the "right" of film producers to grope 16-year old girls, then sack them if they complain:

She is 16 years old and she's an actress. Her friends may perform in school plays, but she is an actress - she has a job. She's in a TV show.

Today she is in wardrobe. One of the producers comes in - someone always checks the costumes. He touches her breast.

She tells her parents and her agent. They ring up the producers; they're angry. Her contract is terminated that day - breach of confidentiality - she talked about being sexually harrassed. By the next day the scripts have all been rewritten

I didn't make that up. It happened on a New Zealand film set this century.

Employment law includes numerous protections to prevent these sorts of abuses of power. Removing those protections enables those abuses - and the abusers. But its not just sexual harassment it enables. Its not just the casting couch. The law will also allow employers in the film industry to sack people who complain about health and safety, sack people for being pregnant, sack people for being gay or Catholic or getting a divorce. And the employee - sorry, "contractor" - will have no real recourse in any of those situations.

This is an unfair, abusive law. It enables unfair, abusive behaviour by employers. And if its the price of keeping The Hobbit in New Zealand, sorry, but that price is simply too high.

Thuggery

The debate over The Hobbit has seen a fair bit of thuggery, with actor's meetings cancelled due to threats and intimidation from angry film technicians. But its gone far beyond that, into death threats:

Actresses and unionists have received threats, including some against their lives, during the heated row over The Hobbit movie.

Police have been called and private security arranged for some of those targeted.

The worst threats appear to have been aimed at Australian union boss Simon Whipp and Actors' Equity organiser Frances Walsh, although actresses Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Robyn Malcolm have also been abused.

The threats have become so bad the union has hired a guard for its Auckland office.

Malcolm is selling her home and has pulled back from some high-profile marketing. She was reluctant to comment this week on any abuse.

I understand that livelihoods are at stake and that some people feel pretty strongly about the movie, but this sort of thuggery is absolutely unacceptable, for anyone. It's also a crime, and I sincerely hope that the pricks doing it are caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Thursday, October 28, 2010



The Hobbit Enabling Bill

The government has finally released the text of the Hobbit Enabling Bill (AKA the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill). Its a short bill, and it basically exempts any "person engaged in film production work" from the factual test of employment status. Meaning that if their employer says they are an independent contractor, then that settles the matter, and no challenge shall be entered into, even when it is patently bullshit. So, what's "film production work"? Well, for a start, it includes video games - so the entire computer games industry in NZ will be effectively excluded from basic employment protections. Secondly, it includes not just actors, stunt doubles, voiceover artists etc, but also anyone engaged in any capacity at any stage of the process, from pre-production to post-production, plus promotion and marketing, whether on off the set. So, not just the Weta Orcs (who are already virtual slaves under Peter Jackson's anti-union regime), but everyone even vaguely connected with the movie. All of these people will be stripped of basic employment protections, including the minimum wage, annual leave and holidays, sick leave, protection from discrimination, and protection from unfair dismissal.

So, that's the cost of The Hobbit: the entire film and video game industry gets to be slaves. I hope all you people at Weta are happy with yourselves, arseholes.

Legislating in secret - again

Last night, I completed my formal submission on the Review of Standing Orders. In addition to the points I raised earlier, I also took the opportunity to complain about the government's habit of legislating in secret. When the government moves urgency, it must identify the business which it is moved for. However, Gerry Brownlee has made a habit of vague and obfuscatory urgency motions, seeking urgency on (for example) "accorded the introduction and passing of Government bills dealing with taxation, employment relations, bail, education, and sentencing"; "the introduction and passing of a Government bill"; and "the introduction and first reading of Government bills". None of these bills were specifically identified, effectively making the urgency motion a blank cheque.

And today, he's done it again, seeking urgency for "the introduction and passing of government bills". He subsequently identified one of these bills as amending the Employment Relations Act for the benefit of Peter Jackson and Warner Brothers. As for the other one, he would only say that it "deals with provisions which are of a legal nature". Which is pretty much anything.

We know that Brownlee is rock bottom when it comes to open government, but this is the absolute pits. He's denying our Parliament the right to know what it will be voting on, until it is sprung on them by surprise. And he's also denying the public the right to scrutinise the Parliamentary process. And that is not acceptable in a democracy.

ECE: Another broken promise?

During the 2008 election campaign, John Key promised to close the gap with Australia. In fact, he widened it. He promised he wouldn't raise GST. He raised it. He also promised not to cut 20 hours free ECE. You can guess what's coming next, right?

The 20 hours of free care children 3 and over receive in early childhood centres is under review, despite the Government's election promise that it would not cut or change the popular scheme.

Education Minister Anne Tolley established an independent taskforce this month to review the effectiveness of spending in the early childhood education sector and propose innovative ideas about learning.

Questioned this week in Parliament about whether funding for the 20-hours scheme would be exempt from the review, she replied: "No, but this Government promised to retain the subsidies and fee controls that make up 20 hours' early childhood services."

We all know how this goes. "Under review" today means cut tomorrow. And the result of that will be more kids pushed out of education, and more parents who can't afford to work. Such a move wouldn't just be dishonest - it would also be stupid. Early childhood education is one of the highest quality social investments we can make, improving education levels and employment prospects and reducing health costs, crime, and inequality. But National doesn't care about that; all it cares about is strip-mining government services to provide tax cuts for its rich cronies.

Meanwhile, Key also made another promise in the 2008 election campaign: not to sell state assets. He's already gone back on two core promises and looks to be about to on a third. So can we really trust him on the fourth?

Banana republic II

So, a major foreign corporation threatens capital flight, and the Key government obligingly bends over for them, offering a further NZ$34 million in subsidies. The one good thing to come out of the 80's was ending the government's habit of subsidising failing businesses (at that time, the entire farming sector) for votes. Now we're subsidising successful ones, who don't actually need the money.

Worse, the deal will also see a law change clarifying that film industry workers are contractors (i.e. removing all their employment rights) rammed through Parliament today under all-stages urgency, with no select committee process. In other words, our laws are not being made in Wellington, but Hollywood; not by New Zealanders, but by foreigners; and not to benefit us, but to benefit them. Trader John hasn't just signed away $34 million of our money - but our independence as well.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010



More British torture

Over the weekend, WikiLeaks released 400,000 classified reports on the US's conduct in the war in Iraq, exposing its tolerance of torture by its Iraqi allies. Meanwhile in the UK, there's been an equally explosive torture-related leak, with the leaking of a British Army training manual which instructs interrogators to use Abu Ghraib tactics against prisoners of war:

The British military has been training interrogators in techniques that include threats, sensory deprivation and enforced nakedness in an apparent breach of the Geneva conventions, the Guardian has discovered.

Training materials drawn up secretly in recent years tell interrogators they should aim to provoke humiliation, insecurity, disorientation, exhaustion, anxiety and fear in the prisoners they are questioning, and suggest ways in which this can be achieved.

One PowerPoint training aid created in September 2005 tells trainee military interrogators that prisoners should be stripped before they are questioned. "Get them naked," it says. "Keep them naked if they do not follow commands." Another manual prepared around the same time advises the use of blindfolds to put prisoners under pressure.

A manual prepared in April 2008 suggests that "Cpers" – captured personnel – be kept in conditions of physical discomfort and intimidated.

This is all contrary to international and UK law, and it may constitute a war crime. Unlike the US, though, there's actually some chance that those responsible will be held to account. The British military's treatment of prisoners in Iraq is already the subject of an independent inquiry as well as multiple court cases. While this isn't prosecution (yet), there is a high chance that that treatment will be declared unlawful, putting the acid on the government to prosecute those responsible.

Krugman on austerity

Another day, another Question Time in which Bill English tries to pretend that the fact that New Zealanders have no money is a good thing, and pushes for further cuts to avoid debt. Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Nobel prize-winner Paul Krugman has been attacking this austerity logic. He's writing about the US and the UK, but he might as well be writing about us:

Both the new British budget announced on Wednesday and the rhetoric that accompanied the announcement might have come straight from the desk of Andrew Mellon, the Treasury secretary who told President Herbert Hoover to fight the Depression by liquidating the farmers, liquidating the workers, and driving down wages. Or if you prefer more British precedents, it echoes the Snowden budget of 1931, which tried to restore confidence but ended up deepening the economic crisis.

The British government’s plan is bold, say the pundits — and so it is. But it boldly goes in exactly the wrong direction. It would cut government employment by 490,000 workers — the equivalent of almost three million layoffs in the United States — at a time when the private sector is in no position to provide alternative employment. It would slash spending at a time when private demand isn’t at all ready to take up the slack.

[...]

What happens now? Maybe Britain will get lucky, and something will come along to rescue the economy. But the best guess is that Britain in 2011 will look like Britain in 1931, or the United States in 1937, or Japan in 1997. That is, premature fiscal austerity will lead to a renewed economic slump. As always, those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

Krugman points out that increased government spending is the solution to this sort of recession, even when it requires more borrowing. Our government is sadly doing exactly the wrong thing. And we only have to look over the Tasman (where the government spent up large and avoided both recession and unemployment) to see that.

Australians support same-sex marriage

A new poll has found that 62% of Australians support same-sex marriage - up from 60% last year. Among the young, support is even higher - 80% among 18 - 24 year olds. 74% of Labour voters support change, and 78% of all voters support the issue being decided by a conscience vote. So why does the government oppose one, and insist that Labour MP's bloc-vote against their own supporters?

As I've argued before, its the electoral system, stupid. Australia's non-proportional system means that the votes of swing voters in key marginal seats are more important than the votes of voters elsewhere. And those voters are bigots. So, a progressive move supported by the majority of Australians is held hostage by a minority, thanks to the disproportionate power granted them by an unfair electoral system. I'm just glad that we don't have the same problem in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering what New Zealanders think of the issue. While civil unions are now accepted, is there support for further progress? Are there any polls?

Banana republic

On the same day we're recognised as the least corrupt country in the world, the Prime Minister is offering to change our labour laws to benefit an international investor:

Speaking yesterday after meeting with the executives, Mr Key said the "paramount" problem was that film workers on independent contracts could be legally seen as employees, even if their contracts specifically called them contractors.

That followed a Supreme Court ruling in 2005 on James Bryson, a model maker on the Lord of the Rings movies, who was deemed an employee, even though he was hired as a contractor.

"They're not arguing people can't be employees," Mr Key said.

"They're just saying that if someone is engaged by their production company as a contractor, they want to know if that's how it's going to end up, and if it doesn't, that has other economic consequences for them.

"They're out of here, if we can't give them the clarity. There's no question about that."

Other reports suggest that this change could be specific to the film industry, or even "unique to The Hobbit". So, in addition to the Canterbury Enabling Act and the Rugby World Cup Enabling Act, we may see a Hobbit Enabling Act (no doubt rammed through under all-stages urgency) as well.

If OTOH its a broader change, then what Key is actually suggesting is giving employers the power to opt out of the protections of employment law (including the minimum wage, holidays and sick leave, union rights and grievance provisions) entirely, simply by arbitrarily designating workers as "independent contractors". Some bad employers (including Peter Jackson) already try and do this, but the law currently subjects such contracts to a factual test. If that test is removed, then its open season. And the primary victims won't be film technicians or actors, but retail workers and cleaners. Supporters of The Hobbit may wish to ask themselves whether seeing the movie filmed in New Zealand is worth their pay, their holidays, their sick leave, and their right to be treated fairly by an employer - because that is what Key is putting on the table.

Something to be proud of

New Zealand has once again topped Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index , ranking as the least corrupt country in the world. But while that's good news, its not as good as it sounds - our score actually dropped from last year, from 9.4 to 9.3. In other words, we're heading in the wrong direction. The reason seems primarily to be laziness and a non-awareness of the potential problem (something that's easy to understand given the absence of corruption in our society). For example

Only 44% of companies on the NZX50 have policies prohibiting bribery & corruption (this compares with 72% in the UK and 68% in the US) Only 14% of companies listed on the NZX 50 have sought to control the way in which facilitation payments are made by adding restrictions into their codes of conduct Only 10% prohibit facilitation payments altogether.

Mr Tan says “When we look at the study results for the NZX50 and then factor in the 2010 CPI results of some of our major trading partners, for example China is 78th with a composite score of 3.5, we believe there is a real risk that New Zealand organisations do not take the risks of bribery and corruption seriously when operating offshore.”

But its not just our business community which is lax - our government still hasn't ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption, despite having signed it back in 2003, and our anti-corruption law is weak by international standards. If we want to retain that top spot, clearly we need to do better.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010



More New Fisk

Exodus. The changing map of the Middle East

How to buy a government

You are a large natural resources extraction company. You want to control the natural resources of an impoverished nation, but the government refuses. So, you fly half their MPs to an exclusive resort, wine and dine them, and pay them to switch sides so as to destabilise the government and force an election. Then you fund the opposition in that election to ensure there will be a change of government, and that the new regime will do exactly what you want.

It sounds like the plot of a movie, but its been happening right in our backyard. Australian-based phosphate company Getax wanted complete control of Nauru's phosphate reserves, and when the company refused their predatory loan deal, they bribed government MPs and bankrolled the opposition in order to get it. And they almost succeeded, producing a parliamentary deadlock that has continued for six months. The company and its dealings are now under investigation by the Australian Federal Police (this sort of bribery being a crime under the United Nations Convention against Corruption). Hopefully they'll succeed in bringing charges. As for Nauru, its still under emergency rule, and the deadlocked Parliament has not been summoned for months. The real casualty here has been Nauru's democracy.

Why we need an enforceable BORA

National MP Paul Quinn, with the full support of his party, is currently trying to ban prisoners from voting via his Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill. Meanwhile, over in the UK, it looks like they're going to be forced to repeal such a ban. Five years ago, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK's blanket ban on prisoners voting violated the right to vote affirmed in the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights. The ruling is binding on the UK government, and if not implemented soon will result in sanctions, including suspension from the Council of Europe and European Union. As a result, the UK government will be forced to change its law, most likely to one mirroring the present NZ law, and sooner rather than later.

This is the difference an enforceable human rights instrument makes: it stops the government from wantonly and egregiously violating human rights. And what this bill shows is that we need one here. As Andrew Geddis pointed out, if Parliament passes this bill it will forfeit all legitimacy as our supreme lawmaker. It will have shown clearly that it cannot be trusted to uphold and protect our fundamental rights, and that it will piss all over them whenever it fells it can grub votes by doing so. It will have shown that we need judicial checks on Parliamentary power. And the way to do that is by elevating the BORA to supreme law, and allowing the courts to strike down such abuses.

The US enabled torture in Iraq

Over the weekend, WikiLeaks dropped another bombshell, with the release of the Iraq War Logs - 400,000 classified reports on the war and occupation of Iraq from 2004 to 2009. There's a number of dirty secrets hiding in the warlogs, from the US's estimate of the bodycount (over 100,000, not including the battle of Fallujah) to the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by US helicopter gunships to the murder of Iraqis who were trying to surrender. But the worst of it is what it reveals about torture in the "new" Iraq. Apart from numerous reports of the abuse of prisoners by US troops (often deliberately downplayed), it also reveals that the US had a deliberate policy of not investigating abuse by their Iraqi allies. The result is predictable: having supposedly invaded Iraq to end torture, the US ended up turning over prisoners to Iraqi torture squads:

In Samarra, the series of log entries in 2004 and 2005 describe repeated raids by US infantry, who then handed their captives over to the Wolf Brigade for "further questioning". Typical entries read: "All 5 detainees were turned over to Ministry of Interior for further questioning" (from 29 November 2004) and "The detainee was then turned over to the 2nd Ministry of Interior Commando Battalion for further questioning" (30 November 2004).

The field reports chime with allegations made by New York Times writer Peter Maass, who was in Samarra at the time. He told Guardian Films : "US soldiers, US advisers, were standing aside and doing nothing," while members of the Wolf Brigade beat and tortured prisoners. The interior ministry commandos took over the public library in Samarra, and turned it into a detention centre, he said.

An interview conducted by Maass in 2005 at the improvised prison, accompanied by the Wolf Brigade's US military adviser, Col James Steele, had been interrupted by the terrified screams of a prisoner outside, he said. Steele was reportedly previously employed as an adviser to help crush an insurgency in El Salvador.

Turning over prisoners to a jurisdiction where there are substantial grounds for believing they will be tortured is a violation of the Convention Against Torture. It may also violate the Geneva Conventions, the UCMJ, and US domestic law. And there's no question that the US had those substantial grounds - one of the warlogs reports that a US officer explicitly threatened to turn a prisoner and their family over to this unit for torture. Sadly, that officer is not identified - because if he could be, that's a pretty ironclad conspiracy charge right there.

What these leaks show is that the US engaged in crimes against humanity in Iraq as a matter of deliberate policy. And those responsible need to be held to account for it. The people who made the decisions to indiscriminately murder civilians and enable torture, on both a policy and operational level, need to go to jail. And until they do, we should regard the US as a rogue nation, no better than the torturing, murdering regime it unseated.

New Fisk

The shaming of America

Monday, October 25, 2010



Labour Day

Today is Labour Day, when we celebrate the establishment of the eight-hour day in New Zealand. Back in 1840, Samuel Parnell and his friends broke the British custom of 12 - 14 hour days, and ensured that right from the beginning, New Zealanders would have time in their lives for things other than work. And its entirely fitting that we celebrate this victory for leisure with a holiday in the sun.

The CTU is taking the opportunity to highlight the erosion of Parnell's achievement. But I think we need to go beyond just defending past gains against the greed of the bosses, and instead present a positive goal to aim for. The 40 hour week recognised that there is more to life than work, that we need time to spend on ourselves and our friends and families. I think we should have more of that. Overseas, they're experimenting with 4 day weeks, effectively changing work patterns to give everyone a three-day weekend. Other countries have tried shifting to a 35-hour week, and taking their increased living standards as time rather than material goods. Both of these are worth pursuing. Parnell won us the eight hour day by refusing to work any longer, and by persuading others to do the same. I think its time that we collectively followed his lead, and demanded more time in our lives.

(Meanwhile, there will be anti-union rallies in Wellington and Auckland today. I understand that those involved are trying to protect their livelihoods. But doing so by trying to limit the right of others to do the same? That's just shameful.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010



New Fisk

They're trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge again

Saturday, October 23, 2010



Some "watchdog"

The Independent Police Conduct Authority are our watchdog for the police. So how independent are they? A story in the Dominion Post this morning gives the answer: not very. Confronted with a case showing appalling unlawful behaviour by police in persecuting an innocent woman, they refused to release their report as it was "not in the public interest":

The Dominion Post has a copy of the secret September 2009 IPCA report into a string of complaints laid by former policeman Dave White about the 2005 arrest of Mrs Teokotai, his mother-in-law.

The IPCA did not make public its findings because the authority deemed them not of sufficient public interest. It found:

[Superintendent Gary] Smith and [Bay of Plenty police professional standards head Garth] Bryan acted unlawfully by not telling Commissioner Howard Broad and the IPCA about Mr White's complaint.

Mr Burns and Mr Bryan showed "poor judgment" and failed best practice and police instructions by appointing a Tokoroa senior sergeant with "a clear conflict of interest" to look into the complaint.

Detectives involved in the investigation into Mrs Teokotai acted unprofessionally and two officers appear to have refused to be interviewed about the complaint.

Tokoroa police acted unlawfully by arresting her and lacked justification to incarcerate her and seize her passport and property.

Police breached their legal responsibility to disclose their evidence against her until six months after the case was dismissed.

The initial internal inquiry into complaints against the officers involved "lacked any semblance of independence and professionalism".

The response to Mr White's complaint was "totally mismanaged by senior officers".

I would have thought that releasing this sort of report was very much in the public interest. It would show that the conduct of police was being monitored, thus building faith in the system. Instead, by keeping it secret, the IPCA have simply shown that when it matters, when police behave unlawfully, they will cover it up for them. And then they wonder why the public has no faith in them...

And then there's the kicker: the officers criticised by the IPCA have been promoted. Smith, who covered up the complaint, got a top job in London as a police liaison. Bryan got a senior job at Police National Headquarters. These are cops who covered up for their mates, who have no place in our police force. The fact that they are still wearing the uniform speaks volumes about the police's tolerance for the criminals among them and their utter lack of commitment to cleaning house. It shows us they have learned absolutely nothing from the police rape scandal. And it shows us that they are utterly unworthy of our respect.

Friday, October 22, 2010



This stinks

Back in July, The Queenstown lakes District Council part-privatised their airport, selling a 24.99% stake to Auckland International Airport. The deal was stitched up in secret, without consultation. How secret? Well, they didn't even tell the council - their owners - until the deal was done:

The partial sale of Queenstown International Airport was kept secret because there was no time to consult the public, the airport's board decided.

Records of a Queenstown Airport board meeting on June 28 – released under the Official Information Act [sic] – show the board was concerned informing the Queenstown Lakes District Council would delay the sale for up to a year.

"Markets for QAC [Queenstown Airport] is strong right now; this may not be the case next year."

Delays associated with the possible election of a new district council was another reason given for keeping the deal under wraps, the records show.

[...]

Councillors, including Ms van Uden, were only told of the deal the day it was finalised. The only two elected members who were told in advance, and sworn to secrecy, were outgoing mayor Clive Geddes and deputy mayor John S Wilson, neither of whom sit on the new council.

This is utterly appalling. It suggests the airport company - a Council Controlled Organisation - was effectively allowed to part-privatise itself, with no input, oversight, or mandate from the council, and in questionable compliance with the consultation provisions of the Local Government Act. The latter has already resulted in a court challenge, which will be heard next year, and we should all hope it is successful. Because if it is not, this undemocratic behaviour will be legitimised, and councils (or worse, CCOs) will have a carte blanche for this sort of privatisation by stealth.

More bullshit from Gilmore

Last month, National MP Aaron Gilmore was exposed as having lied on his CV. After initially trying to blame Parliamentary Services, Gilmore has finally come clean and taken full responsibility. Or has he?

However, yesterday he said the error, and four others, were made in his own office and he took "full responsibility for those errors".

He also told the Herald it had been confirmed that the information was not sent by him.

"However, there is an email from my secretary saying: 'Here is the information' which had all the errors in it, so that is where the problems have arisen.

"I accept that I should have checked the published information and accept full responsibility for not having done so."

Mr Gilmore said he was not going to take the matter further.

"These things do happen."

Obviously. Detailed CVs appear from nowhere all the time, with no input from the person they're about. And if you believe that, I've got a brewery in Mangatainoka for sale...

In reality, this is just another refusal to accept responsibility from Gilmore. Having been caught bullshitting, his response is more bullshit. But then, did we really expect anything different from a manager?

Google is evil

Google's motto is famously "Don't be evil". So why are they engaging in tax avoidance?

Google, the internet giant which makes profits at a rate of $1m every hour, is shielding billions of dollars from tax across the world by using complex financial structures known in the industry as "the Double Irish" and "the Dutch Sandwich".

[...]

The company is pushing the bulk of its non-US business revenues, including all the revenue generated in the UK, through an Irish subsidiary, and then on to the Caribbean tax haven of Bermuda – a structure that tax experts say is entirely legal and is becoming increasingly common among multinational corporations.

Its unquestionably legal. Its also unquestionably evil. Google is using complicated schemes to avoid paying its fair share, in the process robbing governments of billions of dollars. And we all suffer as a result, through higher personal taxes and inferior government services. A corporation which truly believed in not being evil, in not maximising short-term profit at the expense of the public interest, wouldn't do that.

Why we need judicial oversight

When the government passed the Canterbury Enabling Act, a law which allowed Gerry Brownlee to change any law, for any reason, with just a flick of his pen, a lot of people were concerned. Such powers are obviously open to abuse, and the government's promises not to do so obviously an insufficient safeguard. Now, with the government panicking over the fate of a movie, we may be about to see such an abuse, with suggestions they could use the powers of the Enabling Act to amend our employment laws for the benefit of Peter Jackson and a bunch of Hollywood money men. To be fair to Gerry Brownlee, he has not threatened such a move (he certainly doesn't mention it in the RNZ interview people are pointing to), and its hard to see why he would when he could just ram it through as proper law under all-stages urgency. But what if he does?

What's clear is that the law's supposed "safeguard" - review by the Regulations Review Committee under the Regulations (Disallowance) Act 1989 - would utterly fail in such an eventuality. Despite such an amendment clearly being outside the purpose of the law (it being hard to see how making a movie is necessary for the reconstruction of Canterbury) and therefore ultra vires, no member of the Regulations Review Committee is going to want to stick their neck out and expose themselves to a public backlash by declaring it so. The "safeguard" would be ineffective, even in the face of a regulation which was clearly unlawful.

Simply contemplating this possibility shows us what a constitutional affront the Enabling Act was. And it makes something crystal clear: we cannot trust politicians to review the application of this Act, because when push comes to shove, they lack the independence required to uphold the law. We need judicial, not political, oversight.

Thoughts on Standing Orders

Parliament is currently engaged in its triennial review of Standing Orders. Its a fairly arcane subject, but I can think of a few subjects I'd like to raise with them.

Firstly, the Bill of Rights Act. Standing Order 261 echoes the requirements of s7 of the BORA and requires the Attorney-General to report on any inconsistency with the BORA when a bill is introduced. This is a useful mechanism to ensure that when Parliament violates the BORA, it actually means to - but it does not go far enough. As we've seen several times in recent years (notably with the three strikes law), amendments can be proposed either by select committee or at the committee stage which are inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. These receive no formal scrutiny, and this calls into question whether Parliament actually means to violate the BORA, or whether they are merely ignorant. The problem could be resolved by requiring the Attorney-General to report inconsistencies not only on introduction, but before the second and third readings as well. Alternatively, the Attorney-General could report on individual amendments proposed at the committee stage, though this would require more work.

Secondly, privilege. Standing Order 401(n) lists as an example breach of Parliamentary Privilege the following:

reflecting on the character or conduct of the House or of a member in the member’s capacity as a member of the House
As with the law of sedition, if interpreted strictly, this would outlaw virtually all criticism of MPs. Reflecting on the character and conduct of MPs in the performance of their duties, and judging whether they are ignorant, stupid, foolish, venal, self-interested or merely incompetent, is what citizens in a democracy do. But apparently, we're not allowed to, on pain of being hauled up before a kangaroo court of MPs and persecuted for daring to think bad thoughts about them.

This is an obvious prima facie violation of the right of free expression and one which is unjustifiable in a democracy. If MPs feel they have been unfairly maligned by public criticism, then they already have a remedy for that: they can sue for defamation. But they should not be allowed to punish non-defamatory speech, let alone in a manner which allows them to be judges in their own case (or to have their mates judge it for them). If this Standing Order allows punishment beyond that permitted under law, then it is unjust; if it does not, it is unnecessary. Either way, it should be removed.

(Alternatively, it could be amended to add "As a member...". If the House wants to forbid its members from reflecting on each other's character, it can. How Parliament regulates itself is its own affair. If it wants to regulate the public, it should do so by statute, not by standing orders and private law).

Thirdly, there's pecuniary interests. As we've already seen, the rules here are problematic, effectively allowing MPs to evade proper scrutiny by stashing their assets in a trust. And if you go through the register, you will find a large number of MPs availing themselves of this opportunity to thwart public oversight and prevent any scrutiny of their conflicts of interest.

There's an obvious solution to this: bust the trusts, and require MPs to disclose all significant assets in trusts they manage or are beneficiaries of. That way, we can see that our MPs are clean, and that they are not voting to enrich themselves or mingling their public and private interests.

Finally, there's the prayer. If you've ever watched Question Time, you'll know that the House opens with an explicitly Christian prayer, asking that the great bearded sky fairy guide them in various things, including "the maintenance of true religion" and "the glory of thy holy name". This is a violation of freedom of religion. The separation of church and state requires the latter to be neutral regarding religion. What god(s) people believe in is their own affair, but its no business of the state. Opening each day with a prayer violates that neutrality. It excludes every kiwi who is not a Christian - 44.4% of us at last count - by casting Parliament as an explicitly Christian body. And it dedicates "our" House to explicitly religious goals, every day.

We don’t allow prayer in schools for these reasons, and we should not allow it in our Parliament. The opening prayer has no place in a religiously neutral state. The religious beliefs of individual MPs are their own business, but here the beliefs of some are being imposed on the House - and through it, symbolically upon the whole of New Zealand. That cannot be allowed to continue.