Thursday, May 25, 2017

It must be election year

Today was budget day, and National has delivered a budget with a supposed $2 billion "family income package" consisting of tweaks to tax thresholds and Working For Families. There's some nasty clawbacks in that around abatement rates and cuts, but it will definitely make some people better off - not people right on the bottom, but pretty much everyone above that. Its the sort of centrepiece policy you might expect from a Labour government. Which is a guess a sign that National is genuinely afraid in election year.

Unfortunately, that fear doesn't extend to dealing with the big problems. The housing crisis? Nothing. No capital gains tax, no funding for their promises of more houses, nothing. Clean water? Nothing - though they are committing $6 million to making it worse by subsidising irrigation. Climate change? No moves to make polluters pay or push for the radical decarbonisation we need. Transport? Still all about the roads, with nothing for Auckland rail. Beyond the big election-year policy to sweeten up middle-class voters, the rest of the budget is business-as-usual, doing as little as possible other than keeping things ticking over. Its a budget from a government which has no idea what it actually wants to do in office. Which given that this is National, is a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

Oh, but the big trend of the last few years has continued. Despite their utter incompetence and repeated negative reports from the Inspector-General, the spies are getting even more money, with an extra $20 million of the SIS and $40 million for the GCSB. And meanwhile other departments are facing zero increases or cuts. It's a telling reminder of National's priorities: spies rather than support, privacy invasion rather than public services. And a reminder than every dollar we spend on these fuckers and their paranoid, self-important little games is a dollar stolen from the mouths of the needy. Its time to take that money back, by defunding the spies entirely. Its not a hell of a lot in the great scheme of things, but it could make a real difference in the right places.

Brownlee vs the Ombudsman

Back in April I highlighted a disturbing situation where former EQC Minister Gerry Brownlee had apparently sought to bully the Ombudsman over his department being forced to reveal information under the OIA. Now, the next stage of it has made the Herald:

Tension over the rules governing the release of government-held information to the public have led to questions over a senior Cabinet minister's knowledge of the Official Information Act.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Gerry Brownlee told the Herald he had experienced "frustration" over uncertainty about when information could be released to the public and when it could be properly withheld.

In an effort to get more details, he sent the Office of the Ombudsman an Official Information Act request.

The problem? A basic principle of the OIA is that offices of Parliament - including the Office of the Ombudsman - are not covered by the legislation.

Brownlee has told the Herald that he was "trying to make [a] point". Which just seems like bullying under another name. In this particular case, the agency for which Brownlee was responsible at the time - EQC - had an appalling record on OIA issues, caused in part by an outright adversarial attitude towards the people it was supposed to be helping. And despite an Ombudsman's investigation in 2013, it is still failing to obey the law on basic issues of timeliness. Which makes Brownlee's "concerns" about "free and frank advice" so much hot air: his department was sucking at the basics; not the judgement calls. Which seems to be a problem they share with Brownlee himself (he was the worst Minister for OIA timeliness in 2010).

Brownlee's bullying is outrageous and inappropriate. It is like trying to bully a judge who ruled against you in court. And when looked at like that, Brownlee's actions look like attempting to pervert the course of justice. The good news is that the Ombudsman is resisting his bullying - for now.

New Fisk

Donald Trump has just met with the new leader of the secular world – Pope Francis

Equality comes to Taiwan

Taiwan's highest court has ruled in favour of marriage equality:

Taiwan is to become the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage, after the island’s constitutional court ruled current laws defining unions as between a man and a woman are invalid.

Taiwan’s highest court, the council of grand justices, said barring gay couples from marrying violated “the people’s freedom of marriage” and “the people’s right to equality”.

“Sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic that is resistant to change,” the court said in its ruling. “The freedom of marriage for two persons of the same sex, once legally recognised, will constitute the collective basis, together with opposite-sex marriage, for a stable society.”

The island’s parliament has two years to amend or enact laws addressing same-sex unions, otherwise gay couples will automatically be allowed to register under the current framework. Two of the 14 justices dissented and one recused himself.

There is currently marriage equality legislation before the Taiwanese parliament, which the government has been struggling to pass due to a conservative backlash. This will make its passage a near-certainty. One way or another, equality is coming to Taiwan.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"Social investment" is just another word for cuts

The Spinoff interviews economist Simon Chapple on the government's new craze for "social investment". The core problem? It's just a disguise for cuts:

Bill English learned from that episode [the "Mother of all Budgets"]. In a sense the ‘social investment approach’ is pursuing the same goal – smaller government – but in a more subtle way. English’s claim is that social investment is a win-win by reducing the size of government while simultaneously enhancing people’s outcomes. However, when the nuts and bolts are examined, the principal win that government is measuring and incentivising is fewer fiscal dollars, not the secondary win which is better outcomes for people.

[Emphasis added]

That misplaced focus fundamentally undermines the entire exercise. It means for example that WINZ sets goals around throwing people off benefits, not getting them jobs, or making them better off. Meanwhile, its grossly invasive of privacy, while not really solving the problem of false negatives. What it will leave us with is social assistance that focuses on denying people the help they need, rather than helping them, solely in order to save money.

This obviously suits National, who care more about tax cuts for the rich and drowning government in the bathtub than they do about the poor. But it doesn't suit ordinary kiwis, who use and need those services. But since when has National ever cared about us?

Sucking us dry

Its official: a foreign water-bottling company will get to suck the Canterbury Plains dry:

A consent allowing more than 1.5 billion litres of water to be extracted from aquifers beneath Christchurch each year will likely be used for water bottling, documents show.


Official records show the valuable water consent has been transferred to Cloud Ocean Water Ltd, a company registered in March. It was registered with the business classification for manufacturing mineral water.

It raises the prospect that a little-used water allocation may soon be fully realised: If the entire allocation is used, the plant will use more water each day than the suburb of Riccarton, the city's largest.

Cloud Ocean Water is majority owned by Ling Hai Group, a China-based company with broad interests, including the Castlebrae farm in Marlborough, which it converted to a winery focused on exporting to China.

1.5 billion litres a year is also roughly 1.5 billion dollars a year. And Cloud Ocean will be getting it from us for free. Meanwhile, streams are drying up around Christchurch because the aquifers are low, while Christchurch residents were asked to conserve water last summer. And if that happens again, Cloud Ocean will keep right on pumping, stealing the water we need, and selling it offshore. It is simple pillage.

This is why we need commercial water users to pay a resource rental: to stop this theft and ensure the public benefits from the use of a public resource.

New Fisk

Donald Trump is trying to stick to the script – but he's about to really mess up in the Middle East

English lied about blasphemy repeal

Earlier in the month, after Ireland investigated Stephen Fry for blasphemy, Prime Minister Bill English said that it was time for the law to go. So you would have expected that when Chris Hipkins' amendment to add Blasphemous Libel to the Statutes Repeal Bill came before the House last night, National would have voted for it and condemned this archaic law to the dustbin of history, right?

Wrong. They voted against it, along with the Maori Party - and as a result blasphemous libel is still illegal in New Zealand.

The Statutes Repeal Bill process was reportedly supported by both National and Labour, but it had been questioned by some who thought that the change should go to select committee. That's a perfectly defensible position, but its not why National opposed repeal. Instead, they reverted to the "let sleeping dogs lie" position and decided to leave the law on the books because it wasn't being used - despite the past example of sedition which showed that such laws could be revived in an instant by an over-enthusiastic police force. And in the process, they made a liar out of their Prime Minister.

Hopefully we'll see a member's bill on the subject in the next ballot (and if anyone needs one, there's a bill to do it here). But based on last night's performance, I'm not sure that National will support it. Which means that if we want to repeal this archaic, ridiculous, theocratic law, we need to change the government.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Intentional discrimination

The Secular Education Network is currently taking the Ministry of Education to the Human Rights Review Tribunal over religious indoctrination in schools. SEN argues that this is discriminatory against non-christians. And it turns out, the Ministry has known this for a long, long time:

The Ministry of Education identified that religious instruction in state schools might be discriminatory more than 16 years ago, but chose to take no action.

The identification was included in a 2001 confidential internal report to then Education Minister Trevor Mallard, on inconsistencies between the Human Rights Act and Education Act.

The ministry fought for nearly two years to keep parts of the report referring to religious instruction secret, citing legal privilege, but was forced to release the full version by the Ombudsman.

Forcing atheist and non-Christian students to either attend classes that were against their beliefs, or exclude themselves, could be "indirect discrimination", the ministry's legal department said in the report.

The ministry could argue there was "good reason" for indirect discrimination, the report said, but that defence would not work if someone was to argue "direct discrimination".

When you're told that something is discriminatory and you keep doing it, that makes it intentional. The idea that the Ministry knowingly discriminated on the basis of religion for years after being warned is simply sickening - not to mention a flagrant violation of their obligations under the Bill of Rights Act. And hopefully they'll be taken to the cleaners for it.

White, male privilege

You compete for a position. You're new and inexperienced, with no track record and no idea how it works. So you get a trial spot, somewhere you can prove yourself and work your way up. So naturally, you throw a hissy fit and quit because you weren't given the top spot on the first day:

Being a "white, middle-class male" meant Rohan Lord had no future in the Labour Party, the former East Coast Bays candidate says.

Mr Lord withdrew from the race yesterday, after being placed 72 on the party list.

He told Morning Report he was very appreciative Labour considered him and he fully supported the party's platform and policy, but the message he got from his 72nd placement was that he was probably not for them.

"Wrapping it all up really, there's probably limited future prospects."

"I'm white, middle class, male, I couldn't really see a long term future."

Lord is a perfect illustration of white, male privilege in action - imagine, having to actually work for a top spot rather than just having it handed to you! The horror! The insult! But he's also a perfect illustration of the sort of person political parties - and most organisations - are simply better off without: entitled arseholes. Labour is well rid of him.

Corrections cooks the books on privatisation

When National started privatising prisons, they wanted the policy to appear to be successful. So, they set deliberately soft targets, allowing private prisons to "succeed" where a publicly-owned prison would fail. But even that wasn't enough - now it appears that Corrections actually cooked the books to award Serco a pass mark:

The Corrections Department broke its own rules by giving high marks to private prison operator Serco shortly after a near-fatal attack on an inmate in Mt Eden jail.

Guards left Benjamin Lightbody lying in his cell with brain injuries while they filed paperwork and ate afternoon tea in mid-2013.

Corrections' inspectors failed the prison for security and safety, but the department then gave it a pass.

It has refused to explain why.

Corrections owes us an explanation on this, and its hard to see how there can be a good one. The least disturbing - that the people rating prisons weren't paying any attention to inspector's reports - paints them as complete muppets who shouldn't have a job. But its also easy to see how Ministerial pressure over a flagship policy could have played a role. And either way, it suggests that prison rating is something that shouldn't be done in-house, but by an independent, external body.

Climate change: The cost of inaction

For the past nine years National has dragged its feet on climate change, gutting the ETS, letting farmers off the hook, and generally doing everything possible to avoid domestic emissions reductions. But now, the bill for that is coming due:

Newshub can reveal the cost to the New Zealand economy to meet Paris Agreement targets will be $1 billion every year for a decade

But that money won't be spent on reducing New Zealand's domestic emissions, it’ll go towards paying other countries to reduce their emissions.

In documents released under the Official Information Act, a briefing to Judith Collins on her first day as energy minister says the cost to the economy of buying international carbon units to offset our own emissions will be $14.2 billion over ten years.


In the documents, officials say "this represents a significant transfer of wealth overseas", and also warn “ an over reliance on overseas purchasing at the expense of domestic reductions could also leave New Zealand exposed in the face of increasing global carbon prices beyond 2030”.

(Unmentioned is the risk that the units National has committed us to buying will turn out to be as dodgy and fraudulent as those we used to "pay" our Kyoto bill...)

$1.4 billion a year is just a tad under what we spend annually on police. Or its twice what we spend on the courts, or three times what we spend on conservation. In policy terms, its paid parental leave, a massive state house-building program, or the elimination of child poverty. If you're on the right, it's your tax cuts. And National has effectively committed us to pissing this money away because when faced with the biggest policy challenge our government has ever seen, they protected established interests rather than the public.

Obviously, the more we manage to reduce emissions, the less we will actually have to pay. A sensible government would be pushing that hard, making polluters pay to reduce public liability and effective subsidy for emissions. But on this issue, National simply isn't sensible.

Monday, May 22, 2017

NZ Navy looking the other way on fraud?

The US Navy is currently prosecuting over twenty officers over a corruption scandal which saw them overpaying for port services in exchange for bribes and prostitutes. But there's a local angle on this: the New Zealand Navy used the same firm that was overcharging the Americans. But despite having been informed of the US corruption cases, they have no plans to investigate to see whether they were also overcharged:

The Royal New Zealand Navy paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over four years to a ship services company run by a man now imprisoned in the US for an enormous corruption and sex scandal, the Guardian has learned.

US prosecutors say Leonard Glenn Francis, known as Fat Leonard for his wide girth, had cheated its navy out of nearly US $34m — mostly through overcharging port services and providing gifts to personnel, including arranging sex parties.

The New Zealand navy has told the Guardian it paid a total of NZ$710,235.04 (around £370,000) to Francis’ company, Glenn Defence Marine Asia (GDMA), between May 2007 to December 2011 “for specific ship visits in South East Asia.”

The navy told the Guardian in previous correspondence that it had used a “range of services” in Singapore from bus hire to tug provision.

Responding to a freedom of information request, it added it had “not conducted an investigation into its relationship with GDMA based on the results of the US corruption investigation, nor is there an intention to do so.”

Of course not. Because if they investigated, they might find something, and that might damage the navy's reputation. Better to just stick their head in the sand. After all, its only public money at stake...

This attitude is simply negligent. It is also shameful. The New Zealand Navy has an obligation to the public to obey the law and be good custodians of public money. And that includes investigating where there is a suspicion of corruption and fraud. By refusing to investigate, they're telling us clearly that they're putting their interests ahead of ours. And that is simply not acceptable.

New Fisk

US air strikes in Syria: Why America really attacked pro-Assad militia convoy
Rouhani’s victory is good news for Iran, but bad news for Trump and his Sunni allies
Donald Trump’s speech to the Muslim world was filled with hypocrisy and condescension

Spy city

Wellington's latest plan to stamp out beggars: spy on everyone:

A 'big brother' camera and sensor network, used to tackle begging on Wellington's Cuba St, is set to be rolled out across the city.


The project focused on begging, rough sleeping, alcohol and psychoactive substance abuse.

An analytics platform collected data from new sensor technology and combined it with data held by agencies such as police, fire, emergency departments, ACC and the council.

This was then fed into a computer system that created a map with insights into day-to-day street level trends and patterns.

It also highlighted hotspots and provided real-time information to alert agencies to respond.

Video and acoustic sensors were used to count instances of begging, particularity at ATMs on Cuba St.

The information was fed to agencies that sent someone to remove and help beggars with social issues they may also have.

"Acoustic sensors" are what real people call "microphones". So what they're proposing is eavesdropping on street conversation, then having a computer pick out the conversations of interest. It's ECHELON for facespace! And while in this case the target conversations happen to be people asking for or giving money, it could equally be people complaining about politicians, or talking about their private lives, or discussing financial information - the platform allows all of that. And of course, because the system exists, then its accessible to the police in case they want to use it for investigative purposes as well (next step: using it to find drug users maybe?)

The idea that whereever you go in Wellington the council will be listening is simply creepy. And setting up their own total surveillance network (and providing guinea-pigs for foreign companies who probably want to onsell this tech to oppressive regimes) is well outside what most kiwis think local government is for.

Meanwhile, there are a limited number of homeless people and beggars in Wellington. The $125,000 they spent on the trial system would have made a huge difference to their lives. The fully operational system would make an even bigger one. But instead of actually helping these people, the council would waste money on spying on them (and on everyone else). Typical.

We are being ripped off on water

How badly are kiwis being ripped off on water? This badly:

Water bottling companies are paying an average 500 times less than ratepayers for each litre of water they're allowed to use.

A Herald investigation into water fees set by every regional council around the country found bottlers were charged an average $0.003 - or one third of a cent - per cubic metre of water.

Comparatively, in Auckland, Watercare charges $1.40 per cubic metre (1000 litres) for water piped to houses, while the rest of the country paid an average $1.60 per cubic metre.

This is, as the article points out, grossly unfair. A resource we get charged for is provided to foreign-owned bottling companies for free (unmentioned: farmers get it even cheaper). Who then sell it back to us for 300,000 times what they pay for it. I don't think we can get a clearer demonstration of how badly we are being ripped off than that.

This isn't acceptable. And the obvious solution is to charge commercial water users exactly what residential ones pay. Its not as if they can't afford it, or that it would destroy their business - paying the residential price for water would add all of 0.2 cents to a 1.5 litre bottle, which would be unnoticeable to the end user. But the revenue it would bring in to local councils and iwi would make a huge difference.

But the last thing National wants is for farmers to have to actually pay their way rather than freeloading on the rest of us. And so water companies will be able to continue ripping us off and price gouging for something they got for free as long as this government is in office.

Friday, May 19, 2017

A fundamental failure in the duty of care

Serco prison guards fundamentally failed to exercise a proper duty of care towards a prisoner, according to a report from the prison inspector. First, they didn't notice a serious assault for two hours. And then they ignored it:

A guard then checked on Mr Lightbody and found him totally unresponsive despite shaking him and shouting at him.

Both guards did nothing else initially. They sat at their base for 20 minutes, with one continuing to file while the other made himself a hot drink and ate a sandwich.

During this time, the prison wing's manager and supervisor left the unit. The supervisor told the guards that he was off for the next week and that it was up to them to "sort it out", the report said.

The supervisor denied being told of the assault.

Nurses were finally called, but the first arrived without an emergency first aid kit.

An ambulance was eventually called at 5.02pm, more than 2 hours 30 minutes after the attack, arriving 11 minutes later.

The victim ended up with brain damage and is suing Corrections for failing to exercise a proper duty of care. I think they've got a good case. But the report is also clear in blaming Serco's understaffing for the incident, and I'd hope that they're required to pay any eventual damages.

Meanwhile, its also a warning against the dangers or prison privatisation. Privatised prisons are inherently understaffed - its how they make their profits - and combined with prisons' inherent culture of neglect towards prisoners, its basicly a recipe for this sort of failure.

New Fisk

This is the aim of Donald Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia – and it isn't good for Shia communities

Wellington City Council's LGOIMA fail

Wellington City Council is so bad at handling requests under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act that it has been ordered by the Ombudsman to review its processes:

An independent public watchdog has ordered Wellington's mayor to review his council's procedures for sharing information with ratepayers.

This week, Ombudsman Leo Donnelly told Wellington City Council to review the way it responded to requests for information made under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA), and to remind its staff of their obligations.

The Ombudsman's ruling coincides with the council's formal review into its LGOIMA resources, which Wellington Mayor Justin Lester is keen to see.

The review comes after repeated failures to comply with the law and complaints that they were ignoring requests. Hopefully it will result in WCC getting its act together and treating LGOIMA as a fundamental obligation rather than "non-core business" or an irritant.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

This is what happens when you invite dictators to your country

Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is currently visiting the USA. This being the USA, Land Of Free Speech, naturally there are protests. Which get suppressed brutally by Erdoğan's security detail:

The United States has said it was voicing its “strongest possible” concern to Turkey over a street brawl that erupted between protesters and Turkish security personnel during Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Washington.

Police said the fighting outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence on Tuesday injured 11 people, including a Washington police officer, and led to two arrests for assault. At least one of those arrested was a protester.

“We are communicating our concern to the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms,” state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

Video of the incident showed men in dark suits chasing anti-government protesters and punching and kicking them as police intervened. Two men were bloodied from head wounds as bystanders assisted dazed protesters.


Turkey’s official Anadolu state news agency reported that protesters were chanting anti-Erdoğan slogans as the president entered the residence after meeting Donald Trump to discuss the fight against Islamic State militants.

“Police did not heed Turkish demands to intervene,” the news agency said, and Erdoğan’s security team and Turkish citizens moved in and “dispersed them”.

Which is exactly what would happen in Turkey (or some shitty post-Soviet kleptocracy). But the US isn't Turkey, and people there still (in theory) have rights. Erdoğan's thugs appear to have committed a number of crimes, and they need to be arrested and prosecuted for them. If they have diplomatic immunity, they need to be deported immediately. Either way, the USA needs to send a clear message that visiting dictators can't behave like they do at home.