Thursday, July 27, 2017

Secrecy vs accountability

While we're on the subject, there's something else in the Ombudsman's report on Simon Bridges' bullying of Kiwirail which is worth discussing: Bridges (or his staff's) views on the "need" to withhold failed budget bids. The Ombudsman quotes these in full, because they're quite an eye-opener:

Noting that the project was highly likely to form a bid for Budget 18, the Minister’s Office formed the view that if the Business Case was released, then it would open the project up to undue influence and public debate which would more likely than not prejudice the path the Budget bid takes.

As the Budget process is a contestable process, negotiations should be allowed to occur unimpeded without any action that could influence the weighting of one bid over another.

This applies to both the future negotiations to be had at a departmental level in the initial stages of the Budget process, and in the subsequent negotiations between Ministers once a bid has progressed to this level.

A bid will be more objective at both stages of the negotiation process if it is on an even footing with other bids (i.e. that haven’t been publically debated). Public and media scrutiny could directly or indirectly influence the weighting of bids and decision making during the contestable budget process. This is the same principle that the Ministry of Transport advised the Office it applies when considering whether to release failed Budget bids under the Official Information Act.

Or, to put that in plain english: policy proposals must remain secret to prevent the public from telling us what they want.

Its an arrogant, undemocratic attitude, which primarily serves to protect those in power from accountability for their decisions. And in this case, there's a lot to be accountable for. The Spinoff has obtained an unredacted version of the Third Main business case, and it shows it to be the best of ten options considered. The option that National chose to fund - more freight by road - was the worst. If Bridges had succeeded in keeping this secret, then we would not know that he had chosen the worst possible option for freight in Auckland. I can understand why he would be interested in that. But we shouldn't be. While Ministers and sniffy public service technocrats may hate the idea, we live in a democracy, and that means making decisions in the public view. If they don't like that, they can fuck off to a country which better suits their preferred style of governance - like North Korea.

National vs the OIA: The verdict

Last month Transport Minister Simon Bridges was caught trying to bully KiwiRail into unlawfully refusing information. Today, the Ombudsman released their report into the incident - made under the Ombudsmen Act, not the OIA - and it is damning. The report examines Kiwirail's administrative process, rather than the lawfulness of the OIA decisions, and while it concludes that Kiwirail was entitled to consult the Minister's office about the request, it is also clear that they failed to critically evaluate his concerns (and so effectively allowed the Minister to make the decision for them). Then, when their conduct was made public, they made a hasty, rushed decision which was not robust. The Ombudsman is also clear that the Minister's initial concerns - that the document was a draft, was misleading, and should be withheld to protect future budget bids - were not valid reasons for withholding under the OIA, and that Kiwirail made the right decision in initially rejecting them.

As for how to fix this, the Ombudsman has recommended that Kiwirail should review its OIA process and adopt a formal protocol for OIA interactions with the Minister. Meanwhile, it looks like the "budget bid" bullshit defence is going to make its way into the FAQ on common OIA misconceptions.

So, that's a win for transparency - and it shows the value in kicking up a stink about dodgy decisions. Its also highlighted a fruitful avenue for requests: metarequests for communications with Ministerial offices about requests. There's probably all sorts of dirt hidden in those, and if Ministers don't want it publicly exposed, they'll have to ensure they respect the proper boundaries and don't try and bully agencies in future.

Climate change: Getting there from here

New Zealand climate change policy is ineffective. The targets are crap, and the policies are disconnected from them anyway. Insofar as the government takes a long view and sets long-term goals, its with the aim of dumping the problem on future governments, rather than acting to achieve them. But a new report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment proposes that we change that, by adopting the framework of the UK's Climate Change Act.

In the UK, the government has climate change targets set in law. It is required to set five yearly carbon budgets well in advance in order to meet those targets, and state the policies and measures it will use to make sure those budgets are met. And they have an independent and well-resourced Climate Change Commission to report on those budgets and policies and keep them honest.

The PCE, like Generation Zero, suggests that we adopt a similar framework here. It would be a good idea. The PCE also expresses hope that such a framework will have cross-party support. Sadly, I think that's foolish. Out of government, National opposed any measures to reduce emissions. In government, they've had to pretend to care, but in practice have done everything they could to protect polluters. While there's been some promising signs, there's no real evidence that they see this as a serious problem, let alone one worth upsetting their farmer-cronies over. As a government, they won't act; if there is a change of government, I fully expect them to go back to their old Denier ways and oppose any action whatsoever. Action on climate change is going to be politically contested. It will require changing the government, and it will require defending any new framework against the efforts of National to reverse and undermine it. While I'd like it to be different, for National's MP's to understand the problem and support real action, I'm not going to fool myself that that's going to happen. So if we want to save the world, we need to bury them.

More beneficiaries should stand for Parliament

Yesterday the media was in full outrage mode, after the revelation that Green co-leader Metiria Turei campaigned for (other) political parties while on a benefit in the early 1990's. The subtext was clear: dirty poor people shouldn't be involved in politics, shouldn't enjoy political rights. The same old shit the rich have been pushing since time immemorial to protect their power.

But I think there's a different message we should take from it: more beneficiaries should stand for Parliament.

Look around Parliament, and what do you see? A pack of rich pricks. Lawyers, bankers, farmers, property developers, apparatchiks. People who have never struggled a day in their lives. Is it any wonder that they're so focused on tax cuts for themselves and their ilk? Is it any wonder that they let a housing crisis grow and fester because they and their mates saw their paper wealth increase thanks to the "boom"? And is it any wonder that their policies on poverty and inequality display the cruelty and viciousness of ignorance?

In addition to under-representing women and young people, "our" Parliament fails to properly represent those on low or even middle incomes. And the cost of that is policies which exclusively serve the rich, while fucking over everybody else. More beneficiaries standing might help correct that. OTOH, WINZ would probably regard it as an excuse to cut their benefit...

New Fisk

As Syria's army – with Russia's help – advances through the desert, Isis propaganda comes across the radio waves

Dirty dairying may poison Christchurch

Love your Christchurch drinking water? Bad news: the farmers may be poisoning it:

Authorities have privately discussed the possibility that aquifers supplying Christchurch's pure drinking water may become contaminated with nitrates from intensive agriculture.

The concerns have emerged from recent scientific work by Environment Canterbury (ECan), which shows deep groundwater from the Waimakariri district could be flowing towards Christchurch.

It is the first time ECan's modelling has showed that is a possibility.

It is understood the information has not been publicised due to ongoing scientific uncertainty, along with the risk of it becoming politicised due to the upcoming election, said one source familiar with the situation.

And we can't have that, can we? We can't get people getting upset and angry and voting for a government which will stop a pack of rapacious, greedy polluters from poisoning their children!

There's no evidence the aquifers have been contaminated yet. But there's a long-term risk that they might be, with serious health risks for infants as a result. A prudent government would address that risk. National, with its support for dairy expansion and irrigation, seems hellbent on increasing it. The conclusion is clear: if you want safe drinking water in Christchurch, you need to vote for a change of government.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

National wants to sell the national grid

Back in 2013, after a hugely unpopular plan to part-privatise electricity gentailers, National promised that there would be no more asset sales. Of course, they were lying:

NZ First says a leaked January 2017 presentation to Transpower by Swiss Investment Bankers UBS reveals the National Government intends to privatise the National Grid.

“We have evidence National is lining Transpower up for privatisation in 2018 if given half a chance,” says New Zealand First Leader and Member of Parliament for Northland, Rt Hon Winston Peters

“A leaked UBS presentation to Transpower scopes the market, investor appetite and even suggests how stakeholder concerns could be managed. UBS has form with Transpower, having arranged for Transpower a Cayman’s Island based financing deal which only ended in recent years.


“An ‘asset sales’ slush fund is proposed for the $2bn plus that this could net and UBS say it could happen “As early as August 2017” but “likely in 2018 and beyond”.

The national grid is vital infrastructure. If it fails, the lights literally go out. And given that past privatisations have inevitably resulted in strip-mining the asset, underinvesting in maintenance and running things into the ground - that looks to be a likely outcome of any transpower sale. And that's something we just can't permit.

Steven Joyce's response when confronted with these papers in Parliament today was to plead ignorance. So we're expected to believe that this was an unsolicited privatisation plan, or that Transpower had been making plans to sell itself without Ministerial approval. But with National crony Tony Ryall chairing the board, that seems highly unlikely. Instead, it seems that National have been secretly planning to sell us out again, but don't dare put it to the people in the election for fear of the reaction. It's typical behaviour from them, and precisely why they can never be trusted in government.

New Fisk

Syrians aren't just rebuilding an ancient mosque in Aleppo - they are rebuilding their community

Climate change: Fiddling while the planet burns

Two years ago, the government announced a review of its failed emissions trading system. Today, it announced the results of that review. Unfortunately, the result is essentially to do nothing.

Oh, they're looking at auctioning units, so the government can manage supply. Except that the primary source of supply into the ETS - free allocations to polluters - will remain unchanged until 2020. So they're committing to industrial polluters facing no incentive to reduce pollution for the next three years. Worse, these free allocations aren't on a downward path - they're linked to production. So if polluters pollute more, they get more credits. Which is why the carbon budget shows them growing to eat our entire non-agricultural allocation by 2030 (see fig 2).

(Agriculture was of course off the table. It may be our biggest source of carbon pollution, as well as destroying our lakes and streams, but it is a literal sacred cow, and nothing can be allowed to interfere with National's farmer-cronies' "right" to profit by destroying the environment).

They're also looking at some sort of long-term budgeting mechanism, so they can align credit supply with targets (currently its not, with obvious results). This is good, but it should have been done years ago - and the current leisurely pace at sorting it out looks like fiddlign while the planet burns.

Oh, and they're also looking at restricting use of international credits to offset domestic emissions, assuming we're ever allowed to buy any. Looking at the Cabinet paper, regaining access to international carbon markets so polluters can cover their pollution with cheap fraudulent foreign credit is the key priority. Because otherwise, people might actually have to reduce emissions.

If this is sounding repetitive, you're right: it is. Because the government's response to an obviously broken ETS is not to fix it, but to look at fixing it, with a report-back date (sure to be delayed) of mid 2018. Meanwhile, while they crawl along at this glacial pace, polluters keep polluting, and the planet keeps getting warmer. And every day we delay is one day less we have to reduce emissions and makes the inevitable adjustments that much harder. We've already spent over twenty years on this policy - the ETS was first proposed in 1995, and its framework was agreed in 1999 - wasted literally decades waiting for the market to save us. But we're out of time. The market won't work, so we need to regulate instead.

Member's Day

Today is a Member's day, the second to last of the Parliamentary term. And now that we've finally had some interesting bills drawn - death with dignity and medicinal cannabis - the Order Paper is clogged with boring ones.

First up are the committee stages of Chris Bishop's Films, Videos, and Publications Classification (Interim Restriction Order Classification) Amendment Bill and Sarah Dowie's Private International Law (Choice of Law in Tort) Bill, both of which are non-controversial. Then there's the second readings of Andrew Little's Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill (No 2) and Ruth Dyson's Rates Rebate (Retirement Village Residents) Amendment Bill. In the unlikely event that those don't take up all of the House's time, then they may be able to make further progress on Parmjeet Parmar's Newborn Enrolment with General Practice Bill.

There won't be a ballot tomorrow, and the interesting stuff is still well down the Order Paper, and it is unlikely that either bill will get a first reading this term.

An honest endorsement

MMP requires coalitions. But because some high-profile political journalists hate that idea, they've traditionally been reluctant to endorse the parties they would like to work with, instead signalling via a "cup of tea" in a cafe or something. But not Bill English: he is for once being upfront about it:

Prime Minister Bill English has today confirmed National's intention to work with United Future and the Act Party in September's election - encouraging his party's supporters to vote for David Seymour and Peter Dunne.

"We are encouraging National supporters to give their electorate vote to Act candidate, David Seymour, in Epsom, and United Future candidate, Peter Dunne, in Ohariu - and their party vote to National.

"To be clear, we want to increase our party votes in those electorates and that's what our National Party candidates will be working hard to do."

Its a good, honest endorsement, and I applaud him for it. Parties should tell us who they want to work with, and there's nothing wrong with saying "a vote for them is a vote for us in government". And if people don't like that, they can always cast their vote accordingly.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

New Fisk

Secret Russian-Kurdish-Syrian military cooperation is happening in Syria’s eastern desert

Data gaps and social murder

Today in Question Time we saw a perfect example of how government dodges accountability: by deliberate ignorance. Asked how many beneficiaries were homeless, the Minister for Social Development made it clear that she didn't know, and asked that it be set down as a written question. Not that that would likely result in any answers, because it is highly unlikely that WINZ collects this data (and in fact, the requirement for a contact address in order to receive a benefit means that they can simply pretend that all beneficiaries have homes - and violently cut off anyone who contradicts the official story).

It gets worse. Because the next question was how many beneficiaries have committed suicide in the past ten years. On this, the Minister was clear that WINZ had never collected such data. Which seems to be one hell of a gap. Because surely if beneficiaries are killing themselves, that's the sort of thing we should know, and which should result in questions being asked about whether WINZ's policy of cruelty towards the poor is a contributing factor. But those are not questions the government or WINZ wants asked, so the data is never collected. And laws against reporting on suicides prevent advocacy groups from collecting it themselves (in the style of the UK's Calum's list).

The UK is a useful example. Because over there, statistics were collected. When eventually made public (DWP naturally tried to keep them secret), they revealed that the government knew that their policies were killing people. But they kept imposing them anyway, because the British establishment has a depraved indifference towards the lives of everyone outside their public schoolboy clique.

We know that WINZ has killed at least once. The question is how many other times they have driven people to suicide, and what their policy of cruelty costs us in unnecessary mental health problems. We need to know these things, so we can properly judge these policies. The government's refusal to collect this data is simply an attempt to dodge accountability.

As for how we should hole them accountable: if a policy is expected to result in death, and death occurs, that is nothing less than murder. And those who design, implement and approve that policy are all co-conspirators who should go to jail for it.

Update: WINZ doesn't track suicides, but Ministry of Health has some data, which Graeme Edgeler was able to OIA in less than 24 hours:

This is from the mortality database, recording occupations entered on death certificates for deaths by suicide. That won't necessarily map to being in receipt of a WINZ benefit, but its a start.

Monday, July 24, 2017

WINZ staff have a target for throwing people off benefits

Something we knew all along, but until now could never prove: WINZ staff have a target for throwing people off benefits:

Work and Income (WINZ) staff are "more than happy" to break the law to get people off benefits so they can reach monthly targets, it has been claimed.

Beneficiary advocate Jeremy Roundill says a WINZ employee in Manurewa told him the target for each case manager was 12 clients off the benefit a month.

The beneficiaries often don't fight back because "when you're a beneficiary and WINZ provides you with your lifeline, you're likely to capitulate to the orders of your case manager, as they're the one who puts food on your table".

WINZ documents released under the Official Information Act require employees to make "an appropriate individual contribution, as agreed with their manager, to the number of clients supported off-benefit and into employment".

WINZ declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in a statement while there are targets - which differ by regions - employees have no financial incentives to reach them and are not sanctioned if they don't.

And if you believe that, I have a bridge in Auckland to sell you. In reality, if this target is not met, questions will be raised at performance reviews, and pressure will be applied to make sure that it is met. And the net result will inevitably be people thrown off benefits unlawfully so that the case manager keeps their job.

(Note that the "into employment" part of that target is there for show. WINZ isn't interested in getting people jobs, and they don't care what happens when they throw people off benefits. All they care about is reducing benefit numbers to meet to the arbitrary reduction targets set by Ministers).

WINZ should be there to assist people, to ensure they receive the help they are legally entitled to. Instead, it actively denies people that help, as part of the government's war on the poor. This isn't a new problem - remember Christine Rankin? - but it needs to end. Only a complete cultural change will do that. And as shown by the police with their rape culture, that requires more than just a change of top-level management. Instead it will require the removal of almost all long-term WINZ staff.


Since National introduced charter schools into New Zealand, Labour has been crystal clear in its opposition, promising repeatedly to abolish and close them. But now it turns out that they didn't really mean it after all:

Labour plans to make changes to special character schools, which will throw a lifeline to the charter schools they promise to shut down.


On Monday, responding to Davis' pledge to resign over them, Hipkins said "tweaks" would be made so there weren't any "unnecessary barriers" for new special character schools.

That could include allowing schools to have more than one special character, which would make it easier for some Maori and Pacifica-targeted schools, he said.


Under the special character changes Hipkins said it was "quite possible" the charter schools operating in Davis' electorate would meet the criteria to transition.

Those years of opposition? Gone. All that tub-thumping? Meaningless noise. But given its professed opposition, this sudden reversal simply makes Labour look like two-faced liars. And if they'll reverse themselves on something they pushed as a rock solid core policy for years, we really have to ask what other, similarly "core" policies they're willing to throw overboard to pander to Andrew Little's pet picks.

Shooting the messenger

There is abundant evidence that the British military committed war crimes in Iraq: torture, abuse, the murder of civilians, all of which are crimes under UK and UK military law. But rather than properly investigating those crimes, the Ministry of Defence instead appears to have attempted to have lawyers representing their victims disbarred:

The government has been accused of undermining the rule of law by putting pressure on an independent regulator in its action against a legal firm pursuing claims of human rights abuses involving British troops in Iraq.

The former deputy leader of the Labour party, Harriet Harman, has called for the release of any emails that would reveal whether the ministries of justice and defence attempted to influence the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to act against Leigh Day. The human rights firm has been involved in many high-profile cases against British soldiers and has referred a number of them to the controversial Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), now being wound up.

Earlier this year, the firm, two of its senior partners, Martyn Day and Sapna Malik, and a junior lawyer, were cleared by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal of any wrongdoing over claims they had made against British troops. The MoD said it was disappointed with the verdict which, if it had gone the other way, could have been fatal for the firm.


The tribunal hearing the case against Leigh Day was told that 276 pieces of correspondence were exchanged between the MoD and the SRA. In several, defence ministers urged civil servants to contact the SRA to seek updates on the firms’ prosecutions.

Which seems to be straight-out evidence of an attempt to interfere in the judicial process. It's as if they were emailing a judge during a court case. Which is grossly improper, if not an attempt to pervert the course of justice. But this is the British establishment, which clearly will stop at nothing to defend the reputation of their Glorious Military.

While Leigh Day was not disbarred, another law firm representing victims of British war crimes was. The MoD's pressure immediately calls that decision into question, and makes it look like a political verdict. And it destroys any pretense that the UK's war crimes investigations were anything other than another attempt at a shabby cover-up. But if the UK won't investigate its war criminals, I guess they'll just have to go to The Hague instead.

Must read

Today's must-read (though its from last week): Peter Newport's piece in The Spinoff on The Ministry of Transport fraud case: Why the rot goes deeper than Joanne Harrison. Based on information from more MoT whistleblowers, it makes a convincing case that, contrary to government excuses, Harrison was not some fraudulent mastermind who deceived everyone. Instead, her fraud was clumsy, easily detectable - and was detected multiple times. And that it was the failure of then chief executive (and for the time being, Auditor-General) Martin Matthews to actually act on these warnings that was the problem.

That's bad, and it puts Matthews in a very bad light. But the thing that really gets me is this:

Martin Matthews was assistant auditor general for eight years from 1990. One of his core responsibilities was fraud prevention. His boss for much of that time was Jeff Chapman. Chapman holds the dubious distinction of being New Zealand’s highest ranking civil servant to be convicted and jailed for fraud. As auditor general and head of ACC, according to evidence at his trial in 1997, Chapman lived the high life: first-class travel, fine wine and food, trips on Concorde and helicopter rides from the French Riviera to Monte Carlo. He was found guilty of defrauding ACC of $20,000 and the Audit Office of $34,549.

According to our source, Matthews had given MOT staff the impression that he was aware his former boss, Auditor General Chapman, had been cheating the system...

The first bit is bad enough. The natural question is why anyone who was deputy to New Zealand's worst public sector fraudster was ever allowed to work in a management role in the public service ever again. And then to learn that he's been telling people "yeah, I knew about it" and did nothing - its as if he's proud of his role in covering up for criminals. Which is fundamentally inconsistent with the values of the New Zealand public service and the leadership chief executives are required to display. Those statements alone are reason for immediately firing him, because they suggest that he would tolerate corruption in his department. And when there has been corruption in his department, that he was warned about repeatedly, it starts to look a lot like he was a knowing party to the offence.

The report on Matthews should be out this week. But if it finds him blameless and lets him continue in office, there is simply no hope whatsoever for our public service.

The GCSB perjured themselves

Kim Dotcom lost a court case last week over whether he could see the communications the GCSB intercepted from him in order to assess the amount of damages he is owed. But in doing so, we learned something new: that illegal surveillance lasted two months longer than previously admitted, and the GCSB lied about it in court:

The illegal spying which earned Kim Dotcom an apology from former Prime Minister Sir John Key went on two months longer than previously admitted, according to a High Court judgment.

The revelation - if accurate - would open a can of worms over sworn admissions the GCSB has made in the High Court and the Court of Appeal over assistance given to police ahead of the FBI-inspired 2012 raid which saw Dotcom and three others arrested.

It could also raise the possibility of a fresh apology to Dotcom because Key's apology was in the context of spying from December 16, 2011 through to January 20, 2012.

The GCSB had previously given sworn statements on the earlier date in court, so the spies who gave those statements are now on the hook for perjury. But that's not all - because the new date also means that the GCSB continued spying on Dotcom for a full month after they knew it was illegal. Which pushes their spying from "incompetent mistake for which people should lose their jobs" to "knowing illegality for which people should go to jail". Not that that, or a perjury prosecution, will ever happen. Because if we've learned one thing from this whole saga, its that the law simply does not apply to the GCSB. And that makes one of the foundations of consent in the modern state - equal laws, applying to the government as well as the people - a lie.

The GCSB are not just undermining our sovereignty and our international relations. They are also undermining the foundations of our democracy. They are a poison in our body politic. And it is long past time we eliminated them.

Friday, July 21, 2017

"No idea" II

Meanwhile, while the government claims it had "no idea" there was a housing crisis or that it would cost so much, social housing waiting lists have hit record highs:

The growing demand for social housing in New Zealand is showing no sign of slowing down, according to newly-released figures.

The official waiting list for social housing grew by 40 per cent in the last year, and has passed 5000 households for the first time since the Ministry of Social Development took over responsibility in mid-2014.

The increase appears to be driven by demand in Auckland and Christchurch, where a combined 250 people were added to the list since March.

After the last quarter's results were released in April, Social Housing Minister Amy Adams noted that growth in demand had slowed to 2 per cent. It has now bounced back up again, rising 10 per cent in the last three months.

And remember, this is the waiting list after WINZ have denied assistance to everyone they possibly can in a desperate effort to save money and make the Minister's stats look good. So it massively under-estimates demand.

Again, the only reason National had "no idea" there was a housing crisis is because they steadfastly ignored the evidence for years. I guess they were just more interested in the rising value of their personal property portfolios than in what that actually meant for ordinary people.

New Fisk

To the Government, Saudi Arabia is 'The Kingdom Whose Name We Dare Not Speak At All'