Friday, April 28, 2017

Fuck Jenny Shipley

The latest episode of The 9th Floor is out, in which Jenny Shipley opposes "middle class welfare":

During the day we spent with Shipley she said New Zealand needs to take the "blowtorch" to middle class welfare, with student allowances and healthcare areas where middle and higher income earners should pay more.

She finds it "morally bankrupt" that the country doesn't have an honest discussion about this and that she personally feels "sick" that on her income she can't opt out of subsidised health care.

Firstly, I think many people would disagree with her contention that subsidised healthcare (and universal superannuation, and free education and so on) is "welfare" rather than the basics of a decent society. And they'd be appalled to hear her belief (in the Radio New Zealand version) that "the middle class has assets and they should be using those first before they put their hand in the pocket of someone else, such as the state." Or, in English, if you get sick you should sell your house. There's a name for that country, and it's not "New Zealand", but "the USA" - and kiwis are very clear that we don't want to live in that shithole.

But secondly, even if we restrict the idea of "middle class welfare" to things like Working For Families, the reason we have it is because the NeoLiberal "reforms" which Shipley championed - and still champions - drove down incomes and made it impossible for the middle class to earn a decent living, while demanding that they pay more. And that simply was not politically sustainable (and this was before the housing bubble really began to bite). If Shipley wanted to eliminate it, she'd be advocating for higher wages, more secure employment, better conditions - but she's not. Which tells us that what she really stands for is driving the middle class into poverty and reducing us to a tenuous, insecure existence. Fortunately, that idea is as politically acceptable now as it was in 1999 when we de-elected her. But it is nice of her to remind us in an election year of what National really stands for.

High country tenure review is a corrupt privatisation

Last week, in a decision on irrigation in the Mackenzie Country, the Environment Court said there were strong ecological reasons to end the process of high country tenure review. But there's another reason to end it: the process is corrupt:

In 25 years, the Crown has purchased leasehold rights to more than 330,000 hectares for about $117 million; and leaseholders have purchased freehold rights to more than 370,000 hectares with higher production potential for about $62 million.

On average, the Crown price to purchase leasehold rights is about 3.5 times the runholders' price to purchase freehold. This translates to large payouts to runholders at the end of tenure review – more than $50 million so far.

This is a classic case of a corrupt privatisation: government assets sold at hugely undervalued prices. To see how undervalued they are, simply look at what the same land goes for when the former leaseholders inevitably subdivide and onsell it: the median price multiplier is 992. In other words, they buy something (or, more likely, are effectively paid to take it) from the government, and sell it for a thousand times more money.

If this happened in Africa or Russia we would call it what it is: corruption. And we would want those responsible for this criminal undervaluing, and those who profited from it, to be put in jail and their corruptly obtained profits repaid to the state. And that is what should happen here.

New Fisk

Christians are under attack in the Middle East – and not even a visit from the Pope can convince them to stay

National undermines freedom of the press

The Reports Without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index was released this week, and the good news is that we're rated as one of the few countries in the world (along with the core EU and Nordic countries) which still rates as "good". The bad news is that we've dropped 8 places since last year, and RSF is pretty clear about the reasons:

The media continue to demand changes to the Official Information Act, which obstructs the work of journalists by allowing government agencies a long period of time to respond to information requests and even makes journalists pay several hundred dollars for the information. In August 2016, the government revealed a grim future for whistleblowers, announcing a bill that would criminalize leaking government information to the media and would dramatically increase the surveillance powers of the intelligence services. Journalists, bloggers, and civil society representatives would be among the potential targets of the proposed law, which could be adopted in 2017.

National's culture of secrecy and grovelling to the spies is undermining freedom of the press, one of our core values and a vital safeguard for our democracy. Its time we threw the fuckers out and got a government which will respect our democratic freedoms.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

No freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia

In New Zealand, we take the right to speak freely on religion for granted. But in Saudi Arabia, they execute people for it:

A man in Saudi Arabia has reportedly been sentenced to death on charges of apostasy after losing two appeals.

Several local media reports identified the man as Ahmad Al Shamri, in his 20s, from the town of Hafar al-Batin, who first came to the authorities’ attention in 2014 after allegedly uploading videos to social media in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.

He was arrested on charges of atheism and blasphemy and held in prison before being convicted by a local court and sentenced to death in February 2015.

This is utterly barbaric. But its also utterly stupid. To point out the obvious: when the only way people can practice their religion (or simply live in peace) is to overthrow the state, then that's what they try and do. Freedom of religion isn't just recognising a fundamental right - its also a pragmatic response to diversity.

We must end the use of seclusion

We've been hearing a lot about seculision and abuse by solitary confinement recently, thanks to the reporting on the case of Ashley Peacock and investigations by the Ombudsman. And now the United Nations has told us loudly and clearly to stop abusing people this way:

A scathing report has slammed New Zealand for its overuse of solitary confinement - found to be four times higher than in English prisons and in breach of international standards.

Children, disabled people and the mentally unwell were also isolated at high rates, and in conditions considered "stark" and "impoverished", according to Dr Sharon Shalev, an international human rights expert.


Her report highlights a raft of issues, the most serious being the continued use of seclusion on mentally unwell prisoners; and the solitary confinement of children - both against international standards.


Corrections' data showed there were 16,370 recorded instances of segregation in New Zealand in the year to Nov 2016, four times that of England and Wales. Maori and women were both overrepresented.

Its deeply disturbing reading, and it makes it clear that we are failing to abide by basic international human rights standards in our prisons, mental instutitons, and youth justice system. We're also failing to provide basic medical and mental health carein our prisons, which exacerbates the problem. And we desperately need to clean our act up, and stop locking people away in isolation like this.

Sadly, from Corrections' response, we're not going to. Just as they did when they were caught torturing prisoners, they're claiming that seclusion and restraint saves lives. Except that when they were torturing prisoners, that was a lie - they do it not out of any real concern for the welfare of those in their care, but because it is cheaper to do so. Which tells us that if we want to solve this problem, we need a good purge of Corrections officials, so that basic human rights decisions are not affected by economic considerations and National's austerity.

National is ruining our rivers

Today the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand released Our fresh water 2017, a statutory report under the Environmental Reporting Act. And it is damning:

Another major stocktake has painted a grim picture of New Zealand's freshwater environment, showing that nitrogen levels are rising and three-quarters of monitored native fish species are nearing extinction.

The 100-page report, published today by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand, has been described as "damning" by the country's largest independent environmental organisation, which is calling for a dramatic reduction in cow numbers.

The report, measuring a range of indicators including water quality and quantity, and the welfare of biodiversity, confirmed that urban waterways were the most polluted, but declining trends in pastoral areas were just as concerning.

The trends around nitrogen, E. Coli, and biodiversity are dismal. And while river degradation is a long-term problem, the present government has done nothing to prevent it. Instead, they've done the opposite, promoting irrigation while deposing the elected Environment Canterbury and replacing it with a dictatorship (and now a "guided democracy") to ensure that Canterbury's farmers can keep on sucking the rivers dry and their cows can keep on shitting. Oh, they're promising "standards" - pathetically weak ones, which won't apply for 30 years. Which shows their level of "commitment".

We can not allow our lakes and rivers to be polluted like this. The government needs to clean them up: reduce both water use and farm effluent to sustainable levels. And if this government won't do it, we should elect one that will.

"No-one owns water"

That's the government mantra whenever iwi demand their property back, or whenever people raise the prospect of permitting systems to restrict use. But it turns out that someone does effectively own the water: farmers:

But in the absence of a Government price tag, the market has put a value on water in some of our driest regions: between 70c and $1.60 for a thousand litres - a cubic metre - and most recently about $1.

That's about a tenth of 1 cent per litre, but the real price is less because buyers pay once for permits giving them annual rights lasting years, or decades.

The money is going to farmers selling surplus water permits they no longer need for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars (sometimes more).

And the trading is happening in catchments where councils say streams and rivers are already stretched beyond capacity.

And the real kicker is that farmers pay nothing for the water they're selling to each other. A public resource is effectively privatised by allocating resource consents for it and allowing their transfer between parties. And the revenue from that resource is captured privately, rather than benefiting the public.

Its time to end this legalised theft by farmers. Its time to end our primitive "first come, first served" system of water allocation, which has resulted in overallocation, polluted rivers, and legal theft. Instead, we need to reassess allocations to a sustainable level, and make farmers and commercial users pay for the water they use. This will require acknowledging original Maori ownership, and reaching a settlement with iwi over it, but that's not beyond the wit of our government. If they could do it for fish, for aquaculture space, and for the radio spectrum, they can do it for water.

Mission creep

When the government introduced facial recognition technology in passports back in 2006, they assured us that it was about border control and visa processing and that our biometric information would be protected. But fast forward a decade, and we get this:

DIA is a world leader in identity verification and issuing secure passports. Facial Recognition (FR) is a cornerstone of the automated rules processing in the Passports System. DIA is now seeking to replace the current FR solution and look more broadly at its usage across DIA.

DIA is looking to take advantage of industry improvements both now and for the future and move to a service delivery model as an operational cost rather than ongoing capital investment. DIA is therefore taking an as a service approach to procuring a FR capability.

DIA recognises that other New Zealand Government agencies may currently or in the future wish to utilise a DIA Lead FR Service. On this basis, DIA wish to proceed with an Open Syndicated Contract. This will allow any other Government agency to use the contract. DIA will act as the Lead Agency and deal with all aspects of the contract development and management.

[Emphasis added]

Facial recognition as a service means inevitably that the contractor will have to be given a copy of DIA's RealMe and passport photo databases so they can check images against them. Some of our most sensitive personal information will be handed over to a foreign company and stored int he cloud where it can be accessed by hackers and foreign intelligence services - without asking our permission.

Meanwhile, the "open syndicated contract" suggests wider use of facial recognition by the government. At the moment, its mostly used by Immigration for passport control purposes (for NZ citizens, this basicly means Smartgate, which throws your photo after confirming your identity). But DIA seems to expect it to be more widely used, perhaps by police, WINZ, and CYFS (and probably by the spies as well). And again, they're doing this in secret, without asking our permission.

Two of our most basic privacy principles are that our information will only be used for the purposes for which it is collected, and that it will not be shared without our permission. DIA seems to be pissing on that. No wonder they're trying to keep this quiet.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Climate change: who's serious?

One of the more odious things about the US (other than their habit of bombing children all over the world) is their belief that everyone else in the world is a slacker and a cheat. And it's on perfect display with Energy Secretary Rick Perry's comments on the Paris Agreement:

During a speech in New York, Mr Perry also criticised Germany, which has mothballed nuclear plants leaving it more reliant on dirty coal, saying: “Don’t sign an agreement and expect us to stay in if you’re not really going to participate and be a part of it.

“We need to renegotiate it. They need to get serious.”

Here's some facts: the US's Paris target - which they will fail to meet - is a 28% reduction from 2005 emissions levels by 2025 (or about 10% from 1990 in honest numbers). Germany's targets - which they have a credible plan to meet - are 40% by 2020 and 95% by 2050, both relative to 1990 emissions levels. I think its pretty obvious which one of these countries is serious about climate change, and it isn't the USA.

New Fisk

Will Donald Trump have the guts to call the Armenian genocide what it was?
Donald Trump's first 100 days: The madder he gets, the more seriously the world takes him
It is not just Bashar al-Assad who is 'responsible' for the rise of Isis

Spying for the whales

Japan is a country with whom we have generally positive relations. So naturally, the GCSB has been spying on them to help the US at the International Whaling Commission:

New Zealand spied on Japan to help the United States at an international whaling meeting in 2007, according to a classified National Security Agency document.

The Intercept website published the paper, received from US whistleblower Edward Snowden, as part of an article on Japan's secretive relationship with the National Security Agency.

The document, marked top secret, outlined a mission where GCSB spies collected information on Japan and passed it on to the NSA ahead of a key vote.


New Zealand spies were collecting "insightful" intelligence that "laid out the lobbying efforts of the Japanese and the response of countries whose votes were so coveted", the document said.

Japan probably wasn't the only target - GCSB's area of operations includes the South American and Pacific island states whose votes Japan was hoping to buy - most of whom are our friends. And while New Zealanders disapprove of whaling and want to support the IWC moratorium, I think many of us would also be deeply uncomfortable with the idea that we would spy on people and tap their phones to do that. Its invasive, underhanded, two-faced - the exact opposite of the values we want our foreign policy to express.

And that's the core problem: spies are corrosive of our values. Its one thing to spy in wartime, out of military necessity. Its quite another to do it in peace, on your friends, for self-advantage. If an actual person did that sort of thing, most people wouldn't want to know them. And now that we're known to do it as a country, many of our friends won't want to know us either.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today - I'm off to Dunedin to attend its first ever larp convention. Normal service will return on Tuesday.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

100% renewable electricity is achieveable

The Greens have launched a new electricity policy today, and the key component is a target for 100% renewable electricity generation (under average hydrological conditions) by 2030. The obvious question is "is it achieveable"? The good news is that the answer is "yes".

That answer is in MBIE's Electricity Demand and Supply Generation Scenarios 2016 (see sheet 13), which show that almost all of our current thermal generation capacity is scheduled to be decommissioned due to age between 2020 and 2027 (the exception is the relatively new Huntly E3P plant, but that seems fine as a dry year backup). The challenge for meeting the target then isn't how to shut the existing generation down, but how to ensure that it is replaced by renewables rather than thermal generation. The Greens don't actually say how, but the obvious answer is to restore the thermal ban passed in 2008. With flat demand, plenty of already-consented wind waiting to be built, and untapped geothermal resources, it seems perfectly achieveable, at minimal cost. We're going to be replacing this generation anyway, so we might as well be clean rather than dirty.

What if demand isn't flat? The long-term risk here is electric cars, which will mean that the energy they currently get from burning petrol will have to come from the electricity grid. Over the term of this policy that's not a big effect - there are currently only 2000 electric vehicles in New Zealand and while the government wants that to double every year, we'd just build extra wind. In the long run, we seem to be heading for cheaper photovoltaics and battery storage which will allow them to be charged from daytime peak, so policy is a matter of positioning to enable that future. On the other side, if Tiwai Point shuts down, then those thermal plants will close earlier, and we'll chieve the target that much faster.

Basicly, its do-able, and with climate change getting worse, seems like its worth doing. we're not going to make things better by continuing to burn coal and gas.

(There's also some other stuff in the policy: a "winter warm up" payment for low-income households to ease winter electricity costs. Funded by government electricity SOE dividends, but should have significant health benefits. And the usual tinkering with electricity market structures and regulation, but that's less interesting than the headline target).

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The company they keep

"PM announces Sir Edmund Hillary Fellowship", NZ Government, 30 June 2011:

Prime Minister John Key announced today that Indian businessman and Member of Parliament Vijay Mallya will be the next recipient of the Sir Edmund Hillary Fellowship.

Mr Key made the announcement in Mumbai while on a four day state visit to India.


Mr Key says, "Vijay Mallya is an outstanding businessman with a great affection for New Zealand. He is a worthy recipient of the Fellowship and will be a great asset in strengthening the longstanding and friendly ties between the two countries."

"Force India F1 team boss Vijay Mallya arrested in London", Guardian, 18 April 2017:
Vijay Mallya, the multimillionaire co-owner of the Force India Formula One team, has been arrested in London on behalf of Indian authorities investigating allegations of fraud in connection with the collapse of Kingfisher Airlines.

Scotland Yard said Mallya, who fled to the UK from India to avoid arrest in relation to £1bn of unpaid debts, was arrested on an extradition warrant on Tuesday. Mallya was “arrested on behalf of the Indian authorities in relation to accusations of fraud”, the police said.

Well, that's embarassing. sadly, Key has now resigned, so we don't get to ask him about his poor character judgement, or what exactly New Zealand (or the National Party) got out of this.

So much for fixed-term parliaments in the UK

Back in 2011, the UK passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. While born of distrust between the then-government's coalition partners, it for once moved the UK's constitution in a more democratic direction, by stripping the Prime Minister of the prerogarive power to call an election whenever they felt the polls were in their favour. But naturally, it had an escape clause: an election can be called if a government votes itself out of office, or if Parliament votes to hold one by a two-thirds majority. And just five years after being enacted, that clause is being abused to allow the government to call an early election when the polls are in its favour...

Theresa May has stunned Westminster by demanding a snap general election on 8 June that she hopes will turn her party’s clear lead in the opinion polls into a healthy parliamentary majority and secure her Conservative vision for Brexit.

The prime minister made an unscheduled statement on Tuesday morning from behind a lectern outside 10 Downing Street, in which she recanted her repeated promise not to go to the polls before 2020.

Supposedly this is about Brexit. Bullshit. Its the dirty old trick of calling a snap election when the opposition is on the rocks, in the hope of gaining a few more years. But regardless of the reason, it has also made it clear that British governments can not be trusted to behave constitutionally, and that establishment promises of better democracy are simply lies. Again, if you're a UK voter who believes in democracy, I suggest that you get out, while you still can.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

New Fisk

Lebanon’s efficient security services are stepping up their watch over Islamist supporters in Beirut and beyond
If Trump cares so much about Syrian babies, why is he not condemning the rebels who slaughtered children?

A victory for women

In 2014 Kristine Bartlett won a huge victory in the Court of Appeal over pay equity. Now, it looks like that victory is about to pay off, with the government about to approve a huge pay settlement for underpaid women:

A historic pay equity settlement could lead to hefty pay rises for about 55,000 low-paid, mainly female workers as part of a deal between unions and the Government.

Cabinet will discuss the settlement later on Tuesday, with Prime Minister Bill English saying ministers do not want to leave the issue for the courts to decide.

NZME reported the deal would lead to significant pay increases from July for workers in aged residential care, home support, and disability services, all state-funded service sectors with low pay rates and predominantly female employees.

Kristine Bartlett, the aged care worker whose court case kickstarted the pay equity negotiations, would have her salary increase from about $16 an hour to about $23 an hour.

This is great news. And while progress might be slower than if it was gained by a court order, its more certain. Government agencies introducing equal pay should also put more pressure on the private sector to provide it and help drag wages up across the board. And if not, the changes negotiated to the Equal Pay and Employment Relations Acts will allow women to fight for equality and win.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Secret court hearings violate the right to justice

Over the past decade we've seen a push by governments around the world to allow them to present "classified information" (AKA the paranoid ravings of spies) to the courts in secret while denying the opposing parties the right to contest it, or even know what is being claimed. We saw this procedure used in the persecution of Ahmed Zaoui, and since then its been encoded in law in the Passports Act 1992, Immigration Act 2009 and even the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. More generally, National wants to allow this procedure to be used in all civil and criminal trials, just in case the government wants to put its finger on the scales of justice.

Meanwhile, in a decision on judicial review of a passport cancellation, the High Court has just ruled that such provisions violate the Bill of Rights Act:

A statutory provision that material and potentially decisive evidence in a court proceeding is to be presented to the Court and considered in the absence of the party adversely affected is as flagrant a breach of the fundamental right recognised in s27 of NZBORA as could be contemplated...

The whole of our common law tradition, as bolstered by the rights and protections recognised by NZBORA, render the procedure under s29AB an anathema to the fundamental concepts of fairness. However, the reality is that Parliament has recognised the justification for the use of that procedure in defined circumstances.

And because Parliament is supreme, rather than the Bill of Rights Act, they get to get away with this violation.

In passing, the court also criticises the Attorney-General's apparent failure to warn Parliament of what it was doing, citing the lack of a s7 report on the provisions when they were passed. Which doesn't build confidence in Parliament as the guardian of our human rights. As with National's Anadarko Amendment and prisoner voting restrictions, it instead suggests that its time we took the job off them, and gave it to a body which can be trusted to do the job properly: the courts.

The same question

Another month, another formal finding from the Independent Police Conduct Authority that a police officer unjustifiably used a taser to "induce compliance" (torture someone into obeying them):

A police officer's second use of a Taser on a Christchurch man was unjustified, the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) has found.


The IPCA found the officer's first use of the Taser was justified, but that the weapon could not be used on an uncooperative, non-aggressive person to induce compliance.

Authority chairman Judge Sir David Carruthers said the second Taser use "when the man was on the ground and clearly still affected by the first use" was unjustified.

"While the man did not immediately roll over, there was no immediate threat of harm to anybody.

"The second use of the Taser was for compliance and should not have been used. It amounted to a breach of police policy, was disproportionate in the circumstances and an unjustified use of force."

There's a name for "unjustified use of force": assault (in this case, with a weapon). And I'm left asking the same question as I was last month: will this officer be prosecuted? And if not, why not?