Friday, April 29, 2016

Burned flesh on their hands

On Wednesday, a refugee in Australia's concentration camp in Nauru set himself alight in protest at his continued detention. Today, he died. And the scary thing is, he wasn't alone: six refugees tried to kill themselves on Nauru in the last week alone. That's how hopeless they are, that's how damaging Australia's policy of dumping refugees in offshore concentration camps is.

And that's the cost of Australia's vicious, inhumane refugee policies: dead people. Those who support those policies have the burned flesh of the dead on their hands.

Will the UK Conservatives be prosecuted for overspending?

On Wednesday, the UK Conservative party admitted that it had failed to declare tens of thousands of pounds of electoral expenses last election. Today, the Electoral Commission looks to be seriously considering prosecution:

Following months of investigations by Channel 4 News, the Electoral Commission has requested an extension to the time limit available to pursue possible criminal prosecutions regarding Conservative Party campaign spending returns.

Bob Posner, Director of Party and Election Finance & Legal Counsel at the Electoral Commission said, "The police and the CPS both have the power to apply to the Courts to extend the time limit on bringing criminal prosecutions for electoral offences to allow for full investigations to take place. We have requested that they consider doing this."

Representatives of the Electoral Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service will hold also hold a summit with a number of police forces to discuss the Conservative Party's election expenses next week.

My inner cynic says they won't. The UK police exist to protect the establishment. So, they'll look the other way on lawbreaking by that establishment, even when it undermines democracy (and while spying on democratic opponents of the status quo). As for the Electoral Commission, if they're dependent on that rotten police force for investigation or cooperation, its just not going to happen.

And the fact that you can quite reasonably think that is itself an indictment on the UK's democracy. People deserve to be able to have faith in their legal and democratic institutions, to believe that the powerful will be held accountable if they break the law just as the weak are. But in the UK, you simply can't. Their institutions are so corrupt and deferential to power, full of people who all went to the same schools and the same universities, fucked the same pig to join the same snob network, all scratching each other's backs and overlooking each others crimes (because you're all chums, and otherwise, the photos may be made public). Until that changes, their country is unreformable.

The Wicked campers decision

For the past two months, the public has been complaining about Wicked camper-vans' offensive slogans. Yesterday, the Office of Film and Literature Classification responded, by classifying three of the vans as "objectionable" - meaning that merely possessing them is punishable by a penalty of ten year's imprisonment. But note what the ban applies to and why: three vehicles depicting drug use involving cartoon characters, deemed likely to encourage drug use among children. Their sexist, offensive slogans aren't affected. So, while Paula Bennet is blustering and threatening Wicked to remove their slogans or "get out the cheque book", its simply hot air. Those vans aren't banned, and on any honest reading of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, aren't likely to be - because sexist dickheadery isn't grounds for censorship in this country.

Meanwhile, there's this:

Wicked could face a fine of up to $200,000 per offence if it continued to use them. Drivers of the vans could also be fined and police would be able to use their discretion in charging. Police were deciding on the level of consequences.
Or, to put it another way, the police are going to make the law up as they go along to avoid damaging New Zealand's tourism industry. But these are strict liability offences here, which Parliament has decided apply regardless of intent or knowledge. If the vans are banned, anyone currently driving them (or whom they are currently rented to) is commiting an offence (likely multiple offences). It's the police's job to enforce the law as written, and they should do so - not subvert the will of Parliament. And if people don't like that (because, let's face it, it's going to look awful when we bang up a couple of German teenagers and subject them to a show-trial because the stupid van they rented was suddenly classified underneath them), then maybe they should have thought about that before clamouring for the law to be twisted in this way.

(Meanwhile, the Department of Conservation is now a week late on my OIA request on their issues about Wicked. Once upon a time, DoC made OIA a priority and dropped everything to process them. Clearly that is no longer the case under a National Minister. Just another sign of how National has eroded open government and transparency...)

UK police spied on Green politicians - again

More revelations of police political spying in the UK - this time on Green party politicians:

A secretive police unit tasked with spying on alleged extremists intent on committing serious crimes has been monitoring leading members of the Green party, the Guardian has learned.

Newly released documents show that the intelligence unit has been tracking the political activities of the MP Caroline Lucas and Sian Berry, the party’s candidate for London mayor.

Some of the monitoring took place as recently as last year and seemed to contradict a pledge from Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan police commissioner, that the unit would only target serious criminals rather than peaceful protesters.

Extracts from the files show that the police have chronicled how the Green politicians had been speaking out about issues such as government cuts, the far right, police violence, and the visit of the pope.

Dangerous, radical stuff. Practically terrorism. Society clearly needs to be protected from these dangerous malcontents who seek to convince people peacefully, get elected, and change the law by democratic means!

Former Green mayoral candidate Jenny Jones gets it right: the UK police exist to protect the establishment. The Greens criticise, oppose, and ultimately threaten that establishment. And that is why they are targeted for political spying. But it is fundamentally undemocratic, the sort of thing you'd expect in a third world dictatorship, not a supposed democracy like the UK.

New Fisk

Saudi efforts to 'modernise' its economy away from oil are just PR tactics - and the West is lapping them up

A problem of trusts

Two weeks ago, when John Key was forced to reveal that he had at least $50,000 stashed with Antipodes Trust, a legal firm that specialises in money laundering via foreign trusts, he (though his office) assured us that it was all an accident. Key's lawyer had "moved firms", and Key's money had followed him. Of course, he lied:

Companies House documents show that Mr Whitney has been involved with the firm since its inception more than 20 years ago.

So if Key's money is with this dodgy firm of money launderers, it is because he has chosen to become involved in it. And remember, this isn't the first time Key has lied over his financial dealings - it seems to be a habit of his.

But it gets better - because Key's lawyer has also been lobbying to preserve his ability to launder foreign money, and using the Prime Minister's name to do it:
Ken Whitney, the executive director of boutique trust specialist Antipodes, wrote to then-Minister for Revenue Todd McClay on December 3, 2014, over concerns Inland Revenue were sizing up the sector.

"We are concerned that there appears to be a sudden change of view by the IRD in respect of their previous support for the industry. I have spoken to the Prime Minister about this and he advised that the Government has no plans to change the status of the foreign trust regime," Mr Whitney wrote in an email.

"The PM asked me to contact you to arrange a meeting at your convenience with a small group of industry leaders who are keen to engage to explain how the regime works and the benefits to NZ of an industry which has been painstakingly built up over the last 25 years or so."

[Emphasis added]

McClay followed the implied order, and told IRD to stop working on foreign trusts. Its unclear whether he confirmed that Whitney was speaking for the Prime Minister, or merely took it on trust, but either way, the PM's friend got his policy change. And as a result, New Zealand is still "open for business" for rich, tax-dodging sociopaths - and Russian gangsters, corrupt Chinese officials, international arms dealers, and terrorists.

Its an unpleasant insight into how policy is really made in New Zealand - the PM's rich mates having a word in his ear, and Ministers doing what they want because they are reminded of the relationship. And all the worse because Key's "defence" is that this "happens all the time". So, basicly, our policy is being made by and for his rich mates. And if their preferred policies also make us a bad international citizen and contribute to the global problems of tax evasion and money laundering, well, that's just the cost of doing business.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Climate change: The PCE on the ETS again

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has published the second part of her submission on the Emissions Trading Scheme - this time looking at long term changes. There's some proposals around advice and how policy is developed (the PCE suggests an independent agency to report on climate change issues. The PCE is exactly such an agency), but there's also some very topical advice on free allocation and the laundering of dodgy credits.

On free allocation (which saw New Zealand Steel apparently rort us for $4 million in 2014), the PCE recommends that it be phased out, with a clear pathway to doing so. They don't talk about timelines, but originally all free allocation was supposed to be gone by 2030. Given that business has already profited substantially from this, I think a shorter timeframe is justified; ten years ought to be long enough to prevent any short-term shocks (and also short enough to limit the damage from sabotage by a future National government).

On credit laundering, the PCE is clear that this was both fraudulent and is unnecessarily postponing necessary domestic emissions cuts (and tree planting). Her solution however isn't the immediate cancellation of the profits of fraud, but merely a commitment not to use them post-2020. Its a weak and morally compromised position that does her office no credit.

sadly, I expect National will ignore even that weak advice. As the Herald notes, they're simply not interested in climate change. While their denier faction is now publicly silent, they still prevent the government from taking any real action on our most pressing environmental problem. So, we'll have to wait for a change of government in 2017 or 2020 before we see any of this implemented.

New Zealand should take Australia's refugees

Yesterday, Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court found that the Australian refugee concentration camp on Manus Island was illegal and violated human rights. Shortly afterwards, Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill announced that the centre would be closed and demanded Australia take its refugees back. Australia, of course, is refusing, and alternating between "your country, not our problem" and promises to ship them to Christmas Island or Nauru, interwoven with threats to cut off aid to Papua if it doesn't ignore its constitution and continue to illegally detain and torture Australia's refugees.

Of course, there is a solution: New Zealand could take them. We've done it before, when Australia refused to accept refugees from the Tampa, and we should do it again. We've got space - and even a standing offer. But Australia refuses to accept that out of fear the people it has illegally detained, brutalised and tortured would become New Zealand citizens and use our open border to go to the very country which mistreated them. Yeah, right. But that does say something of Australia's high opinion of itself that they think they can abuse people in this way and yet they'll still want to live there...

But to be honest, given their policies, offending the racist, torturing Australians is a bonus, not a drawback. They need to be shown that not even their closest friends will accept their conduct. We should talk to the Papuan government directly, and offer to take all the detainees from Manus. And if Australia doesn't like it, tough.

Avoiding freedom of information in the UK

Like other countries, the UK has a Freedom of Information Act requiring them to disclose government information (subject to withholding grounds) to anyone who asks. Ministers don't like that - public scrutiny is so inconvenient - and now they've been caught deliberately trying to avoid it by using WhatsApp:

The Government is facing calls to be investigated over claims ministers supporting the Remain campaign have used WhatsApp to discuss strategy away from official channels.

A private group on the encrypted messaging service has reportedly been used to exchange texts by people guiding the campaign to keep Britain in the EU, prompting allegations that details are being kept secret from the public.

According to The Sun, one senior Tory warned attempts to avoid transparency laws could lead to "scandal and embarrassment" for the Remain group, and Labour MPs are said to have called for the Information Commissioner to probe the claims.

Context: the "Remain" campaign is run by the government. So we have government Ministers trying to discuss government business in secret. Which simply isn't legal. Hopefully the Information Commissioner will remind them of the law, and force release of this material pour encourager les autres.

Climate change: Failure

News of more climate change failure from National this morning, first with Genesis Energy's announcement that they won't be closing Huntly and will instead be keeping it open for another four years. Huntly is our dirtiest generator; it burns coal, FFS - the worst possible fuel for the environment. Shutting it down would remove 5% of our emissions overnight! But instead, generator nervousness (brought on by their inability to invest in clean options due to prolonged uncertainty over Tiwai Point) has won the day, so we will get dirty power instead of clean. Its a perfect example of how National's ETS - which should have priced coal and Huntly out of the market long ago - has utterly failed.

Speaking of the ETS, it also appears that New Zealand Steel rorted it for profits, taking free units in excess of its actual emissions, but paying in fraudulent Ukrainian and Russian "credit" they'd bought for next to nothing. As a result, they appear to have scammed us for over $4 million. Its certainly an incentive, but probably not one for the emissions cuts National was hoping for. Instead of "polluter pays", we have "pay polluters", while the planet burns.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Unlawfully killed

Twenty-seven years ago, in April 1989, 96 people were killed and over 700 injured in a crush at Hillsborough stadium in the UK. Today, an inquest found that they had been unlawfully killed by the police:

The 96 people who died at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 were unlawfully killed and a catalogue of failings by police and the ambulance services contributed to their deaths, the jury at the new inquests into the disaster has determined.

The verdict, which came shortly after the 27th anniversary of the lethal crush at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, vindicated the bereaved families, who have campaigned tirelessly against the police’s efforts to blame supporters for the tragedy.

The question now is whether any of the police officers who made the decisions leading to those deaths, and the decisions afterwards to doctor evidence, change witness statements and blame the victims will be prosecuted. Sadly, I doubt it. Instead, we'll see the British establishment protect its own, say that too much time has passed and nothing can be done. And the net result of that will be to enable future wrongdoing, while further eroding public faith in government.

Justice for rendition

In 2009, Italy convicted 22 CIA agents in absentia for their role in the kidnapping and rendition from Italy of a refugee. One of those agents was dumb enough to set foot outside the United States, and was arrested in Portugal last year to face extradition. Her appeals have finally been exhausted and she is to be extradited to Italy next week:

A former undercover CIA officer is to be extradited to Italy following her conviction over the 2003 extraordinary rendition of a terror suspect to Egypt.

Sabrina De Sousa, a dual US and Portuguese citizen, was arrested in Portugal last October and has since lost three appeals against being handed over to Italian authorities. Her extradition is scheduled for 4 May.

Good. It may only be one of those responsible, but some justice is better than none.

meanwhile, there's a suggestion that the Italian government will pardon her to keep on-side with the US. They shouldn't. De Sousa conspired to kidnap and torture a man. Pardoning would simply make the government complicit in her crime.

Australia's gulag is illegal

Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court has found the detention of refugees in Australia's concentration camp on Manus Island to be illegal:

The five-man bench of the court ruled the detention breached the right to personal liberty in the PNG constitution.

There are 850 men in the detention centre on Manus Island, about half of whom have been found to be refugees.

The Supreme Court has ordered the PNG and Australian Governments to immediately take steps to end the detention of asylum seekers in PNG.

"Both the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments shall forthwith take all steps necessary to cease and prevent the continued unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees at the relocation centre on Manus Island and the continued breach of the asylum seekers or transferees constitutional and human rights," the judges ordered.

In one of two lead judgments, Justice Terence Higgins said the detention also breached asylum seekers' fundamental human rights guaranteed by various conventions on human rights at international law and under the PNG constitution.

Australia is saying they will not take the refugees back. But they're Australia's responsibility. There's also the question of compensation from the PNG government for years of unlawful detention and abuse (and, potentially, from Australia's corporate subcontractors, who did the actual detaining and beating). But Australia will probably try and walk away from that too. Which is hardly going to encourage other countries to deal with their mess. Which means that Australia will have to admit responsibility and start dealing with refugees again, rather than trying to shove them out of sight, out of mind onto its poorer neighbours.

Open Government: Oh FFS

It is now 63 days until New Zealand's second National Action Plan must be presented to the Open Government Partnership. A requirement of OGP membership is that action plans be co-created with civil society, including a mandatory consultationperiod during development. So when is consultation on New Zealand's action plan scheduled to begin and how long will it last? The Minister won't say, and their answer implies heavily that they are still waiting for advice on it. And thanks to Kris Faafoi's useful monitoring questions, we know that she didn't receive any advice on the OGP in March, or in February, or in January, despite there being a consultation process to plan.

It gets worse. What awareness-raising activities, required by the OGP's articles of governance, has the New Zealand government undertaken? She's still waiting for advice on that as well, it seems. Does she even know when its due? Yes, but she seems to think the deadline is negotiable:

While New Zealand's second Open Government Partnership (OGP) Action Plan is due to be submitted to the OGP by 30 June 2016, New Zealand intends to consult the OGP Secretariat on this timing to ensure that we can engage meaningfully in the development of the Action Plan.
There is, of course, no provision for extensions in the OGP statute. And its amazing that she's apparently decided this without ever having received any advice on it (you'd expect "ignore our international obligations and ask for an extension" to be a decision made by the Minister, not some public servant).

How has this happened? This might be the answer:
At any one time a minimum of one FTE in the State Services Commission (SSC) works on Open Government Partnership activities, with additional SSC staffing resources used as required.
One person. They have one person to handle what is supposed to be an ambitious, multi-departmental work programme with international obligations. No wonder its a fucking shambles.

Compare the answers from Bennett with the consultation requirements laid out in the OGP's Articles of Governance (p. 19). We've already failed on "availability of process and timeline", we've failed on "adequate notice", and we've utterly failed on "awareness raising". We will receive another negative report from the OGP's Independent Review Mechanism for this - and this after we promised them that we would fix those problems from our first consultation. Which means the possibility of a finding that we have ignored IRM recommendations, which (given we've already had one warning) means a referral to the OGP's Criteria and Standards Subcommittee and a formal membership suspension. That's what "open government" means under National: being suspended from the body which promotes it. Heckuva job they're doing, isn't it?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Climate change: NZ must surrender the profits of fraud

Last week the government's use of dodgy Ukrainian emissions units hit the news, with a report from the Morgan Foundation accusing it of "climate fraud". The government felt this was serious enough that Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett was forced to admit on Q&A that it was not right and that they won't do it again. But while she's said she's waiting for advice on whether to cancel the AAU we saved by paying our Kyoto obligations in fraudulent hot air, I'm not holding my breath. That would involve doing the right thing. Besides, it was all "within the rules" so everything's OK, and it'll all cost too much, so we can't afford to. And so the march to oblivion continues.

This isn't good enough. Our government has just admitted committing fraud. Its not enough that it promises not to do it again - it has to make restitution for that fraud. And that means surrendering the profits of that fraud, the fraudulently-retained AAU. They apply that logic to criminals; the government should be held to the same standard it seeks to hold others to. And if it thinks that's too much, we should rightly ask why they seek to have one set of laws for us, and another for them.

For a land tax

John Key is apparently looking at a land tax on foreign property owners (including kiwis overseas) to cool the housing market. Good - but why stop at foreigners? There are New Zealand speculators who are driving up house prices, shouldn't they be taxed too? More generally, a land tax targets the wealthy directly, and in a way that can't be avoided by sharp accountants. If the government is worried about hitting ordinary New Zealanders, it can recycle some of the revenue as lower-bracket income tax cuts to ensure that only the rich and foreigners are worse off. It secures the tax base and redistributes in one hit.

But National will never do that, because its MPs own too many investment properties in Auckland and too many farms. So instead we'll get a half-arsed solution (and probably one easily dodged by playing corporate shell games), while ignoring the obvious one right in front of us.

Meanwhile Labour is doing its usual bullshit by crying "flip-flop". Which just shows again how they stand for nothing and how hollow and devoid of principle they are now. A left-wing party shouldn't complain when a right-wing government is forced to take progressive action - it should cheer while demanding (and promising) more. Labour's inability to do this again demonstrates how they're so caught up in the game of politics that they've lost track of where the goals are. Someone needs to put them out of their misery.

New Fisk

When we mourn the passing of Prince but not 500 migrants, we have to ask: have we lost all sense of perspective?

This is what happens if you don't have a plan

Radio New Zealand reports today that the electricity industry thinks the government's 90% renewables target is "unrealistic" and will not be met. This has been apparent for years. In 2010, the government's Energy Outlook - its modelling of electricity supply and demand to predict future needs - showed that we were never going to meet that target, and this was repeated in its draft 2015 generation and demand scenarios. And the reason is simple: because while the government set a target, it had no plan whatsoever to reach it. Instead, it relied on the market, which (while its moving in the right direction) is moving much slower than expected.

If the government was serious about this target, it would have backed it with policies: a thermal ban, a higher carbon price to drive existing thermal generation out of the market, mandatory renewables certificates to provide an additional revenue stream, or feed-in tariffs for wind to provide security for investment. Instead, they rolled back those policies, revoking the thermal ban and crippling the ETS. To the extent we've had progress at all, its only because Tiwai Point is threatening to shut down - and that's a mixed blessing because it has also stalled new investment.

But the fundamental problem is that the government doesn't care. Sure, they'll set a renewables target - but like their climate change targets, it'll be far in the future, when current Ministers expect to no longer be in government and therefore cannot be held to account for their failure to meet it. IBGYBG - and someone else will be left to clean up their mess.

Friday, April 22, 2016

An admission of guilt

Britain's political establishment just exempted itself from money-laundering regulations because one of them threatened to try and ban curtains. Yes, really:

George Osborne has agreed to make MPs exempt from anti-money laundering checks under pressure from moaning Tory backbenchers.


Mr Osborne caved under pressure from influential Tory backbencher Charles Walker, who has been pressing for the change for some months.

Mr Walker, who chairs the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, last week threatened to table a bill banning curtains if he was forced to publish his tax returns.

I'm not going to pretend to follow the absurd "logic" on display here, linking tax returns to money laundering checks to curtains. But to anyone outside Britain's pig-fucking classes, this looks like a tantrum by the entitled to protect their "right" to engage in corrupt behaviour and take secret bribes. In other words, an admission of guilt.

How Britain stacks the legal deck

Proper reporting of legal cases is just something we take for granted in a democratic society under the rule of law. Its just a basic function of the legal system, part of everyone being able to know what the law means and what the government is allowed to do. But Britain isn't such a society - and so over there, its government interferes with judicial reporting in an effort to stack the legal deck:

At some point, the reporting committee decided not to report the case of Qadir & SM vs the secretary of state for the home department. As I reported last month, this case proved that the Home Office had deported thousands – probably tens of thousands – of people on the basis of a scrap of hearsay evidence. It had accused students of fraud, put a black mark against their name which would prevent them being accepted into other countries, conducted dawn raids against them, separated husbands from wives, put many in detention, and then deported them. It did all this without giving them their day in court. Their only right of appeal was out-of-country.

Thousands of others were waiting on the result of the Qadir case so they could use it to fight their own appeal. After all, the case had seen the witness testimony of two Home Office officials - Rebecca Collings and Peter Milinton –branded unscientific and useless. These two witness statements were used against all the other people accused of fraud. If they were deemed useless in this case, surely they would also be useless in all the other cases?


But it won't, because the reporting committee is refusing to report it. The decision means that the case cannot be cited, except under very strict and laborious conditions, in other appeals. It means many thousands of people who have been unjustly deported will not even know of its existence. The decision makes the ruling against Theresa May legally useless. It’s as if it never happened. The reporting committee has taken a damning judgement against the home secretary and buried it.

It gets worse. Because this isn't the only case they've buried. It appears the upper tribunal (which deals with immigration appeals) has systematically been reporting rulings favourable to the government, while refusing to report rulings against it. Which makes those rulings difficult to use as precedents in future cases. And naturally, the committee which makes these decisions is secret, uncontactable, invisible. Which is how you exercise power without accountability.

Of course, the UK has a Freedom of Information Act, so the identity of the committee, their contact details, their criteria for reporting decisions, and their discussions with the Home Office about this case are all (in theory) obtainable - likely after several years delay and several legal appeals. But in the meantime, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people will be unjustly deported, because the precedent which could have saved them was suppressed. Just another example of how the UK isn't really a proper, democratic society.

New Fisk

Finally, Israel and Palestine is a US election issue. The ‘last taboo’ is not broken, but it’s splintering

Climate change: The stopgap solution

Pure Advantage, New Zealand's clean business lobby, has a major report out today on Our Forest Future. The short version: planting 1.3 million hectares of trees will soak up enough carbon to meet our 2050 emissions target. Pure Advantage suggests the government establish a national forests strategy to make this happen.

This is an old idea - the government has been talking about planting huge forests on the East Coast for the last twenty years - but its a solid one. The problem is making it happen. Because for the past decade, the economic incentives (high dairy prices, low wood prices, carbon prices near zero) have all pushed towards deforestation rather than afforestation, which makes the problem worse.

There's also another problem: this forest has to be permanent. While Pure Advantage talks of commercial forestry having a role (and seems to be using this as a way of pushing to allow commercial harvesting of native species again), forests are only a permanent carbon sink if you never cut them down. Which means that we will need strong regulation to ensure that supposed "permanent" commercial forestry keeps its word, rather than e.g. deciding to cut it all down to turn into dirty dairy farms again in thirty years time.

Unfortunately, while pointing to a solution and calling for a strategy, the report is very short on actual policy. There are a couple of minor things we can easily do - increasing funding to the QEII national trust so it can actually cope with the number of applications, get the government to establish a native seedling nursery to gain economies of scale and lower the cost of re-establishing native forests. There's also an interesting proposal to create a "premium" permanent forestry unit within the ETS and set an (increasing) quota on polluters to provide a strong economic incentive. But fundamentally the government is going to have to get involved through regulation, grants, and punitive deforestation taxes to make this happen. And on a project with immediate costs to cronies and no immediate political payoff (and requiring sustained attention for over a decade), I just can't see that happening under a National government.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"No human rights issues"

Yesterday, we learned that Bill English wants to end your privacy, opening up government information sharing so that any public servant can see any of your private information (where you live, what you earn, how often you get sick, whether you've been raped) on their phone. The underlying driver for this is the government's ICT Action Plan which includes as one of its action points a revision of privacy laws. I've been looking at the Cabinet paper on this, and its a scary document. As with their recent intelligence "review", its apparent that privacy simply was not a consideration. For example:

Although it is important that the right balance is struck between innovation, security, and privacy, the clear focus will be on innovation and managed risk-taking that will deliver the public services expected by citizens. The GCIO will work in partnership with the security services to ensure the right balance is achieved and it is anticipated that the revised Strategy will be complemented by the forthcoming New Zealand Cyber Security Strategy, which aims to ensure that New Zealand is secure, resilient and prosperous online

While they talk of a "balance", its clear that the "right balance" is to simply ignore privacy and let the government do whatever it wants. As for what this looks like in practice, here's National's desired outcome:
The public sector has a culture and capability that defaults to releasing, sharing, publishing and
re-using of information and has earned sufficient public trust and confidence from citizens (’social license’) to do this. Government-held information is made widely available to inform decision making, reduce effort and drive innovation.

Sharing by default sounds great, until you realise that its our most sensitive details they're talking about, and they'll be available to every shitty little call-centre prole (and anyone they sell it to, or mail it to accidentally, or anyone who hacks them) to spy and sell and perve and judge however they want. The fundamental point people like DPF overlook in this is that its precisely the personal information which is valuable here. To use Bill English's example, you can't gain useful insights into vulnerable families without knowing about vulnerable families and their members (their incomes, educational achievement, medical history, criminal victimisation, and so on) - in other words, if you open their lives up to scrutiny without permission (or with coerced "permission") to others. And that is fundamentally intrusive and invasive.

And then there's the kicker, buried at the end among the certification boilerplate:
This paper has no human right issues

Really? They're talking about a massive, society-wide invasion of privacy amounting to mass data-surveillance, and they think it has no human rights issues? What the fuck are they on? Whichever policy analyst wrote that is clearly a muppet and should be fired for it.

To use the government's terminology, this is a matter of "social licence". The government wants to be able to effectively spy on and database everyone, so they can save a few dollars here and there. And that's simply not something we should let them do. Our privacy is valuable, and we should not let the government take it away from us.

We're being robbed

John Key has weighed in on the debate over bottled water exports, saying that he really doesn't think its a problem. Of course he doesn't. After all, companies are making millions of dollars selling a public resource they get for nothing. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Everything. Under the current regime, bottled water is nothing but licenced theft, the robbery of the environment and future generations for the private profit of a few now (and oddly, those few include people connected to the National Party, like Judith Collins' partner. How weird is that?) And that is simply wrong.

We charge royalties for oil, we charge royalties for gold and silver, we charge royalties for coal. And we should charge one for water too. If John Key thinks this would price dairy farmers or hydroelectricity generators out of the market, then I don't think its beyond the wit of his government to craft a regulatory regime which targeted those bottling water (or other drinks) for sale and ensured that the public and iwi get a fair return on our resource. But the current situation, where National's rich friends rob us blind, cannot be allowed to continue.

New Fisk

Obama knows 9/11 was linked to Saudi Arabia – its massive oil reserves are behind his official visit

Open Government: A formal warning

When New Zealand joined the Open Government Partnership, the government framed it as a reflection of our strong tradition of open and transparent government. Three years on, that tradition isn't so good: we've been formally warned by the OGP for failing to meet our obligations:

The Government of New Zealand did not submit its Self-Assessment Report as of January 31, 2016, four months after the deadline of September 30, 2015 and therefore, is considered to have acted contrary to OGP process in this action plan cycle. We acknowledge that your government did submit a completed self-assessment report in February, but the submission date was too far after the deadline to change the outcome in this case.

We're lucky they didn't look at the actual merits of the report, otherwise we'd be in real shit. But that's coming - the OGP expects us to actually address issues raised by the Independent Reporting Mechanism, rather than ignore them. So, if the development of the current action plan doesn't respond seriously to the IRM's concerns about ambition, consultation, and relabelling of existing programmes, there's a real risk that we will receive a second warning and our participation in the OGP will be reviewed.

And on that front: its now only 69 days until our second OGP action plan is due, and the government still hasn't begun consultations. Despite making specific promises in both its mid-term self-assessment report and to the IRM that it would commence consultation sooner, we've got nothing. What the fuck is going on?

At this rate, there's a real chance that New Zealand will be thrown out of an international body we should be leading. Which I guess shows National's real level of "commitment" to open government.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Bill English wants to end your privacy

Not content with granting more and more powers to spy agencies, National is now planning to database and spy on the poor:

Bill English -- Finance Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and now prospective Big Brother; he wants to bring together the data held by 10 government agencies so that more can be known about Kiwis.

The agencies include health, education, social development, justice and Inland Revenue. It will create what he calls a "data highway".

He'll give government workers access to it, even on their smartphones, so they can draw information on people from multiple sources before making decisions that affect them.

The data has already shown New Zealand's 10,000 most vulnerable people will cost taxpayers $6.5 billion over their lifetimes.

English says this is about helping people by "sharing" their confidential, private data - but we all know that it will really be about shitting on them, cutting their benefits, throwing them out of state houses, making it more difficult to access government services. Because National sees everything as a way of cutting costs and reducing government services. So, they'll give ACC access to your medical records, WINZ access to your police file, Housing NZ access to your kid's school reports, your kid's school teacher access to your sexual history, and the SIS and their foreign "allies" access to everything, all in the hope that someone, somewhere, will find a reason to cut your funding or jail you (or, in the SIS's case, finally find the "terrorists" their budget is predicated on).

This is, of course, illegal - the Privacy Act prohibits information sharing between government agencies except for statutory purposes and according to externally approved information-sharing agreements. And that's for good reason: because people won't tell government agencies what they need to know if they think the information will be widely shared. But English is clearly planning to change the law - in fact, there's an ominous little footnote in the government's ICT Action Plan which says they plan to:
identify and address aspects of various pieces of existing legislation that constrain interoperability of information and data through an omnibus Bill

Or, in English, repealing Privacy Act protection against the government to allow open slather and snooping into your private life.

But this isn't just a matter of mass surveillance through big data - its also a matter of your security. Because the wider your information is shared within government, the wider the pool of people who can abuse it, profit from it or lose it. We already have persistent problems with police and WINZ staff abusing their access rights over the huge databases those organisations have built up to snoop on friends and partners or run profitable side-businesses corruptly selling their access. And we have constant stories of how deeply personal information - even stuff on abused kids - was left lying around for anyone to look at, left on a train, or emailed to the wrong person. Bill English will make those problems bigger. And we will all pay the price for that.

(And that's not even getting into the risk of serious theft. Concentrated data is more valuable data, and this database, combining police, educational, medical and income data would be a gold mine for blackmailers, criminals and identity thieves - or just bored teenagers. In a world where we read about a major website hack on a weekly or monthly basis, and where people knock over databases for shits and giggles, this sort of data concentration is simply asking for trouble).

But we'll also pay another price, in trust. Because the natural response to organisations asking things they don't need to know, or sharing information more widely than required, is to lie. We already do this on the internet, giving disposable email addresses, fake phone numbers, and false demographic data to nosy American corporations when all they need is a credit card number and a shipping address; Bill English will give us an incentive to do that to the government too. And when he wants every random public servant who meets you to be able to look on their phone and see instantly where you live, what you earn, who you fuck and whether you've been burgled or raped, that seems like a very good idea.

FOIA uncovers the human toll of UK benefit cuts

Since 2010, Britain's Tory government has viciously cut benefits, subjecting the disabled to privatised "Work Capability Assessments" and then cutting off their support. So far, this policy has resulted in an estimated 590 suicides, and the actual figure could be much more. Now, Britain's welfare authorities may be forced to publish what they know about their death toll:

The Department for Work and Pensions may be forced to disclose details of secret investigations into the suicides and other deaths of benefit claimants, after a successful tribunal appeal.

Disability rights campaigners, mental health charities and the families of claimants who have killed themselves or died after cuts to benefits have argued that 49 DWP secret investigations or “peer reviews” into the deaths of claimants should be published. A peer review is triggered when a suicide or alleged suicide is “associated with a DWP activity”, according to its internal guidance.

The Disability News Service (DNS), which first disclosed that the DWP had conducted 60 reviews into the deaths of benefit claimants after a freedom of information request in 2014, won its appeal against the DWP’s subsequent refusal to publish any information from them and the decision of the information commissioner’s office (ICO), last September, to uphold the government’s refusal.

Which means we'll be able to see whether recommendations were made to prevent such deaths, whether they were implemented, and who needs to be held to account for this heartless, murderous policy.

And as usual, I'm left wondering: National has pursued the same policies here, imposing pointless work and health tests on the permanently sick and disabled in an effort to find an excuse to cut their benefits (to which we can also add their sheer fucking incompetence). How many have they murdered?

Why we need to price water II

Two weeks ago, we learned that Ashburton District Council plans to sell 40 billion litres of pure water from an over-allocated catchment to a water bottling company in a time of drought. Today we have another example: National's friends Oravida:

New Zealand water could be the next big export to China and one of the companies that has just jumped in for a slice of the pie is none other than Oravida.


They've now expanded from Scampi and milk, to water from a plant in the Bay of Plenty it bought for an undisclosed sum last year.

Oravida has a consent to 146 million litres of ground water a year and the regional council says Oravida pays an annual compliance charge of around $500.

Oravida markets the water at $1.60 a litre, meaning if all 146 million litres were sold it could be worth $233 million a year.

$500 for a $233 million revenue stream? This is simple plunder. But its a perfect example of why we need to price water: to ensure that we actually benefit from our resources, rather than letting them be effectively stolen from us for beads and blankets.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The internet beats the UK courts

I haven't been following the UK's "celebrity threesome" case a lot, because I don't give a shit about celebrity gossip. However, I do give a shit about freedom of speech, so I'm glad to see the rich prick's injunction preventing publication of their names overturned by the Court of Appeal:

An injunction banning the media in England and Wales from identifying a celebrity involved in an extramarital relationship should be lifted because of leaks overseas and online, the court of appeal has ruled. However, a three-judge panel, headed by Lord Justice Jackson, extended the ban on publication for two more days to allow the celebrity, known only as PJS, to mount a challenge in the supreme court.


Giving the court’s reasons, Lord Justice Simon said: “The court should not make orders which are ineffective.” In what is likely to prove a key legal opinion, he said it was “inappropriate – some may use a stronger term – for the court to ban people from saying that which is common knowledge”.

I'd call it "nonsensical", myself. And its good to see the UK courts finally recognise this.

The lesson for the media is obvious: if an injunction looks likely, share information with foreign partners to pre-empt and circumvent the courts' jurisdiction (some sort of non-revocable digital dropbox timed to release to selected partners seems appropriate). A sort of automated Streisand Alliance, if you will. But hopefully this will also represent a change in legal thinking, where the likelihood of widespread publication will itself reduce the courts enthusiasm for (ineffective) suppression.

Proving their point

Back in January, the Greens proposed the not very radical idea of a policy costings unit to provide independent information on political party promises. National immediately denounced it as costing too much (while shovelling $26 million towards John Key's vanity flag referendum). So, the Greens sought to have the policy costed by Treasury under existing rules. You'll never guess what happened next:

The Finance Minister has refused to allow the Treasury to cost Green Party policy despite rules allowing political parties to access such a costing.

In January, the Green Party Co-leader Metiria Turei proposed the formation of the Policy Costings Unit (PCU), which would operate independently to cost the policy of political parties. At the time, the Prime Minister dismissed the idea saying it would cost too much, so the Green Party asked Treasury to cost the PCU proposal in February.

“Currently, political parties can get their policy costed by Treasury, but need the permission of the Finance Minister,” said Mrs Turei.

“By refusing to allow Treasury to cost our policy, Bill English has proven this is why we need an independent policy costings unit which is not subject to political interference.

Pretty much. But in order for that to happen, it really has to be a standalone Crown Entity or an Office of Parliament, not part of Treasury.

Meanwhile, its a disturbing insight into how National corruptly uses its control over the machinery of government for partisan political purposes and to undermine our democracy. New Zealand deserves better than this. English should resign.

Another astonishing coincidence!

Yesterday, we learned that the government had awarded a multimillion dollar hotel management contract in Niue to a company whose founder just happened to have given them a huge donation the month before. Today, Scenic Hotels is eager to assure us that its all just an astonishing coincidence - but in the process they've revealed something else:

A hotel group that won a contract to run a Niue resort has denied any conflict, despite its founder making "numerous donations" to political parties.


"I don't think there's been any surprise over the years from Earl and his political affiliations," he said.

"It's comes up in casual conversations in our board meetings that Earl's made donations. He's done it over the years.

"I mean, it's not first time he's donated to the National Party and he's made quite numerous donations to the ACT party over the years as well.

So he's a regular National Party donor - but obviously below the level where such donations would have to be declared. Which makes it rather interesting that in January 2014, National awarded him a gong:
Christchurch millionaire and founder of the Scenic Hotel Group Earl Hagaman has been recognised for his services to business, tourism and philanthropy.

Hagaman, who with his wife Lani was estimated to be worth $180 million in the 2013 NBR Rich List, has been made a companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

He donates so often that it "comes up in casual conversations" and then he's awarded an "honour". Another astonishing coincidence! Just like all those other people with such coincidences! Maybe with such astonishing powers over coincidence, they should all take up gambling?

Dead and buried

The planned online voting trial at this year's locla body election has been cancelled:

Associate Local Government Minister Louise Upston has announced that the online voting trial proposed for this year’s local body elections will not proceed as more work is required to ensure a trial meets public and government expectations.

“Public confidence in local elections is fundamentally important. Given real concerns about security and vote integrity, it is too early for a trial,” says Ms Upston.

Good. Online voting is fundamentally insecure, and those problems aren't going away any time soon. The government should never have proposed this, but its good they've finally recognised it. The question is, will they still try to foist it on us, or recognise that the problem is fundamental and give up? Sadly, I'm expecting the former.

Monday, April 18, 2016

New Fisk

Murdered Italian student Giulio Regeni paid the ultimate price for his investigation into Al-Sisi’s Egypt

McCully doesn't change his spots

Oh dear - Murray McCully is mired in another corruption scandal:

Earl Hagaman, the founder of Scenic Hotel Group, gave $101,000 to the National Party in September 2014. In October, Scenic Hotel Group announced it had the contract for the Matavai Resort on Niue - a contract awarded by a trust which was appointed by Foreign Minister Murray McCully to oversee the resort.

Mr McCully told RNZ National that there was no link between the donation and the contract and he had not been involved in awarding the contract. That was decided by the Niue Tourism Property Trust after running an international and competitive process. Mr McCully appoints the trustees for that but said he was not involved in the decision. "I can tell you that I had no involvement in the appointment process, conducted purely by the trustees and commercial management they appointed.

No link? Yeah, right. From another Minister, it might be believable that this was all some dreadful, terrible-looking coincidence. But from Murray McCully, a determined micromanager with a history of dodgy dealings and outright corruption, its simply not. The Auditor-General needs to investigate, and if there's even a hint that McCully had anything to do with it, the contract must be voided and prosecutions brought. We can not allow Australian-style corruption and kickbacks to take root in our government.

As for Hagaman, he shouldn't have donated. You can do business with the government, or you can donate to political parties, but you simply cannot do both - at least not if you want to avoid any perception of corruption. By donating when an important decision was being made, Hagaman has irrevocably tainted it in the public eye. And he really has no-one to blame for that but himself.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Places to go, people to be

Nothing from me today, as I'm off down to Wellington for a larp convention. Normal bloggage will resume on Monday.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Last year, Nick Smith promised to solve Auckland's housing crisis using "spare" crown land. He failed:

Housing Minister Nick Smith has so far only managed to secure 25ha of spare Crown land for housing in Auckland after promising to deliver 500ha in last year's Budget.

The plan to find pockets of publicly owned land to turn into housing in Auckland was a key plank in National's Budget last year which Dr Smith said could result in thousands more houses. Dr Smith later took media on a tour of Auckland to inspect some of the sites. However, he revealed on One News that only 25ha had since been secured for housing and the $54 million budget for the project had been exhausted.

However, he had not given up and was still confident he could get to 500ha in the long term, saying he expected to make further announcements soon and had asked Finance Minister Bill English for more funding in next month's Budget.

...which at the rate Smith is paying, is going to cost just over a billion dollars. I think we can all predict Bill English's respone to that.

Unless of course English decides to pillage ACC and the Cullen Fund again. He's already using them as a slush fund to provide revenue for tax cuts and build subsidies for farmers; maybe he'll get them to pay top dollar to Auckland property developers for land to build houses on as well?

Horizons doesn't support swimmable rivers

Horizons, my local regional council, has consistently dragged its feet on clean water, refusing to take a strong stance on cleaning up the Manawatu River and letting farmers ignore the requirements of its One Plan (and then trying to cover it up). And it looks like they're doing the same on National's National Policy Statement for Freshwater:

Pushing for swimmable waterways would destroy the livelihood of the Manawatu, according to a regional councillor.

On Tuesday Horizons councillors voted against pushing the Government to aim for a harder target than wadeable waterways.

"It is just not physically possible unless you want to destroy the livelihood of this region and the agricultural sector by imposing those sorts of standards for every day of the year," Palmerston North councillor Murray Guy said.

Horizons has a statutory duty to protect our waterways. Clearly, a majority of them are uninterested in doing that. The good news is that there's local body elections in October, so we get a chance to vote these polluting pricks out and elect people who will actually do their fucking job.

(Post title from councillor Bruce Rollinson, who pretty much asked for it)

Time to end the Ruataniwha disaster

Back in 2013, Hawke's Bay Regional Council wanted to build a dam. Pitched as a "boost to the regional economy", it was really a subsidy, destroying a river and a reserve to funnel money into the private pockets of farmers. Back then, the dam was expected to cost $600 million. Naturally, farmers refused to pay for it, expecting HBRC and private investors to pony up to increase the value of their farms and boost their farming of capital gains.

Today, we learn that the price has increased by 50%, to $900 million. And farmers are still refusing to pay, and now its ACC and the Cullen Fund who are expected to pick up the tab. But if they won't pay, then they can't really expect anybody else to.

This scheme is a disaster, both in environmental and financial terms, And HBRC has wasted millions on it already. Time to cut their losses and pull the plug.

...though they might not have to. Because the only good news in today's report is this:

HBRIC has also struggled to get the minimum number of farmers to buy enough water to make construction viable.

It has set a deadline for Monday for farmers to buy the water or the dam won't go ahead.

So hopefully on Monday they'll finally announce that its all over. OTOH, they've set deadlines before, and always ignored them, so maybe they'll keep trying to scam a subsidy for farmers for a while longer.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

What is John Key hiding?

Andrew Little has laid down the gauntlet on transparency and tax cheating, announcing that he will release his tax returns. As for John Key, not so much:

But Key said he has no intention of releasing his records. He was "100 per cent confident" his tax affairs are beyond reproach.

Yeah, nah. Its not a question of whether he's confident - but whether we are. This just comes across as more shiftiness. To point out the obvious, the Prime Minister used to be a banker; what is he hiding?

Why is ACC investing in Ruataniwha?

Earlier this year, there were repeated suggestions that ACC might invest in the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme. Like many others, I was curious about whether they were or not, so I asked. And like the others, I received the same response: neither confirm nor deny:

It is understood ACC may invest in the dam, after cornerstone investors Trustpower and Ngai Tahu pulled out, saying the risks were too high and the rewards too low.

However, ACC said its position would be prejudiced if it disclosed whether the information asked for even existed, and said therefore "ACC neither confirms nor denies the existence or non-existence of the information".

Which is pretty much an admission of guilt, in that if they had no plans, they would simply say so. Which invites the question: why the hell is ACC investing in this shitty deal? I managed to get some other bits of data - they are not acting under a formal government direction - so why are they doing this? The market has (quite rightly) turned its nose up at this scheme, viewing it as a risky investment with low rewards; wouldn't investing in it be a violation of ACC's duty to prudently manage public money?

~90% of NZ benefit fraud allegations are false

Last month, we learned that more than 85% of public tip-offs of welfare fraud in the UK were false. I was curious about whether this trend was repeated in New Zealand, so I asked the Ministry of Social Development for some information about the number of complaints and the proportion of those which were substantiated. Their response:

I can advise that, in the 2014/15 financial year, the Ministry received 12,530 fraud allegations from the public, staff and other agencies. Of those, 11,592 allegations were received from the public.


[T]he Fraud Investigation Unit completed a total of 5,342 fraud investigations and 927 successful fraud prosecutions in the 2014/15 financial year. There were also 1,619 overpayments worth over $51.7 million established during the 2014/15 financial year.

Overpayments aren't fraud, and most aren't detected as the result of public allegations (most are WINZ fucking up, which means someone getting a different sum from that which they are entitled to). There's also caveats around investigations and prosecutions not necessarily occurring in the same financial year as allegations. Still, the 2014/15 figures aren't out of line with their publicly released figures for past years, so we can get a ballpark solution. MSD seems to have taken "successful prosecution" as a proxy for "substantiated", so if we take them at their word, it suggests that 92.6% of all allegations of benefit fraud are false. And even if you buy into their "overpayments are fraud" line, then that means that 87% are false. Looking at investigations, over 80% of them don't result in successful prosecution. Which really makes you wonder if we're getting value-for-money from the Fraud Investigation Unit. Because on these statistics, it looks like they're mostly just spinning their wheels on pointless and intrusive snooping into innocent people.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Good riddance to Clayton Cosgrove

Yesterday Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove announced he would stand down at or before the next election. Good riddance. I've had a hate on for Cosgrove ever since he voted against civil unions in 2004, so I'm glad to see the back of him. If you needed another reason to celebrate his departure, he was on the right of Labour's caucus, took gifts from Sky City and money from Independent Fisheries, and rorted us as a Minister. For the Labour fans, he was also notorious for running electorate-only campaigns while ignoring the party vote, putting his personal prestige ahead of his party's success. The sooner he leaves Parliament and makes way for someone else, the better.

Open Government: The Minister isn't interested II

So far, New Zealand's participation in the Open Government Partnership has been defined by ministerial disinterest and SSC incompetence. Two weeks ago, the Opposition finally started paying attention to this, with Labour MP Clare Curran asking a series of parliamentary questions inquiring about the upcoming action plan process. The answers to the first batch of these came back over the weekend, and they don't paint a very pretty picture.

Firstly, the biggie: what concrete changes have occurred as a result of joining the OGP? According to State Services Minister Paula Bennett, the answer is that now we have an action plan. And that's it. No mention of whether the actions in that plan have led to any actual change in the way we do government ("no", according to the OGP's Independent Reporting Mechanism), which you'd think is the point. Apparently the Minister thinks that the purpose of the OGP is to generate plans rather than change.

Secondly, what lessons have been learned from the government's miserable failure on its first action plan? Officials are (still) considering it. Which given that one of the key identified failings was consultation an co-creation, and we have only 79 days to go until the next action plan has to be presented to the OGP, is leaving it pretty fucking late.

Thirdly, what action has she taken to fix those problems? None. The Minister is asleep at the wheel, and the result is going to be a further erosion of New Zealand's international reputation.

Finally, what advice has the Minister received on the consultation process for the next action plan? None - but she expects to receive some in future. Again, 79 days to go - its a bit fucking late now. And there's an obvious question of why she wasn't being advised about it back in October, in time to get a proper consultation process in place. Did she not ask, or did SSC not tell?

All of which seems to support my initial conclusion: the Minister isn't interested in the OGP, and SSC isn't interested in keeping her in the loop or asking her if she wants to do anything differently. And insofar as she hasn't been asked, then it is senior public servants in SSC who are to blame for the unambitious targets and appalling approach to "consultation" that they are inflicting upon us.

New Fisk

Echoes of Stalinism abound in the very modern Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict

Fox to review henhouse

Last week we were reminded that New Zealand is a tax haven. The National Party's response was initially bellicose, saying that they see no need to be a good global citizen. But I guess their polls have told them that New Zealanders disagree, because now they're promising a review by an "independent" tax expert:

The government is likely to appoint an independent expert to review New Zealand's foreign trust laws, says Prime Minister John Key.


Last week Mr Key rejected any suggestion New Zealand was a tax haven, saying New Zealand had "full disclosure of information."

But in an apparent backdown Mr Key told RNZ's Morning Report he would take a proposal for a review to Cabinet today.

"It's highly likely, I think, that the government will ask an expert in this area to undertake an independent review - just for good order.

A review is of course what you do when you don't want to do anything. It allows the government to respond to queries about tax cheating by saying "we're having a review" and punting the issue off the headlines. So, its not action, but an excuse for inaction.

Plus of course there are no "independent" experts. Expert tax lawyers all work for tax-cheats, or want to, if they currently work for a government revenue collection body. So, Key will be getting a fox to review his henhouse. And we all know what the result of that will be.

Friday, April 08, 2016

What should be in NZ's OGP action plan?

Back in 2014, New Zealand joined the Open Government Partnership, an alliance of governments aiming to increase transparency, accountability, and participation in government. Unfortunately, our participation so far has been a bit shit, and things look set to continue that way.

Its currently 82 days until New Zealand's second national action plan must be presented to the OGP. The State Services Commission, the agency responsible for managing our participation, hasn't even started consultation yet, let alone done the required co-creation with civil society. So, in the absence of them leading a conversation on what should be in the action plan, I thought I'd start one of my own.

Our last action plan contained ambitionless "commitments", all of which were things we were doing anyway. SSC blamed a lack of time for this - they started so late that there was no time to agree to anything significant, so the status quo won by default. But not having time doesn't mean not doing anything new - there are reforms we can take off the shelf, which have been kicking around for years and on which policy work is largely done, and agree to enact them. Here's a few from my pet area, freedom of information, based largely on the Law Commisison's 2012 review of the Official Information Act.

The Official Information Act 1982 should be amended to provide that any person (whether a citizen of New Zealand, resident in New Zealand or otherwise) can make a request for information, consistent with equivalent provisions of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987.
This would bring the OIA into consistency with the LGOIMA and Privacy Act, as well as international best practice (R134 from the Law Commission report). A minor change, but a useful one.
The New Zealand Government should legislate to require government agencies to take all reasonably practicable steps to proactively make official information publicly available, subject to the withholding grounds of the Official Information and Local Government Official Information and Meetings Acts.
Again from the Law Commission, and while it could be seen as legislatively codifying existing practice (an awful lot of stuff is proactively released already), it would also help drive it further. This one has moderate impact, and is potentially transformative if agencies pick it up and run with it. And that would make it more effective than anything SSC promised in the first action plan.
The New Zealand Government should proactively publish all Cabinet papers, agendas, and minutes, subject only to redactions consistent with those permitted by the Official Information Act 1982.
You don't need legislation to proactively release, and this would be a solid sign that the government was leading by example. It would also gain international attention - other countries are already boggled that we casually and routinely release Cabinet material, so committing to do so as a matter of course would astonish them. The measure has wide political support - DPF has consistently advocated for it, and it was part of Labour's 2011 open government policy. And its just a good idea to tell us what our government is doing on a week-to-week basis.
The New Zealand Government should establish a working party to review the schedules to the Official Information Act 1982 and Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 and other relevant legislation to ensure that all agencies which should be within the scope of the legislation are included.
Recommendation 121 from the Law Commission, basically a review and tidy-up, but it would force the government to look at bodies currently excluded (such as Parliament, the Security and Intelligence Committee, the Independent Police Complaints Commission and port companies) and state publicly why they should be excluded.

Most of these proposals are minor; the scary thing is that they are still far better than the bullshit and waffle SSC seems to have decided we're going to get. They're also clearly relevant to OGP goals, and specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound - unlike SSC's waffle.

There are plenty of other things which could be in the action plan, even given the time constraints; company and trust beneficial ownership is an obvious topical example. And it speaks volumes that SSC isn't considering any of this stuff, and is instead looking for existing bureaucratic waffle to pad out its "commitments", rather than committing to real (even if minor) reform.

David Cameron: Tax Cheat

So it turns out that, after days of unconvincing efforts to dodge the topic, David Cameron is a tax cheat:

David Cameron has finally admitted he benefited from a Panama-based offshore trust set up by his late father.

After three days of stalling and four partial statements issued by Downing Street he confessed that he owned shares in the tax haven fund, which he sold for £31,500 just before becoming prime minister in 2010.

In a specially arranged interview with ITV News’ Robert Peston he confirmed a direct link to his father’s UK-tax avoiding fund, details of which were exposed in the Panama Papers revelations in the Guardian this week.

Admitting it had been “a difficult few days”, the prime minister said he held the shares together with his wife, Samantha, from 1997 and during his time as leader of the opposition. They were sold in January 2010 for a profit of £19,000.

[Emphasis added]

So he was benefiting from this foreign trust all the time he was an MP, right up until he became Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, it turns out that he also personally lobbied the EU to exempt such tax-cheat trusts from a Europe-wide crackdown on tax evasion. I wonder why?

The fact that he tried to cover it up for so long tells us that even Cameron believes his behaviour is shameful and reprehensible. He's a cheat and a liar and a scumbag, and unfit to be an MP, let alone Prime Minister.

New Fisk

The 'one for one' refugee policy means we're picking and choosing among desperate people

An expensive mistake

Back in January, IRD arrested Ngatokotoru Puna at Auckland Airport for supposedly failing to meet his student loan repayment obligations, then extorted $5,000 from him to be allowed to return to his family. Now, it looks like that is turning into an expensive mistake:

Mr Puna lives and works in the Cook Islands. The Cook Islands along with Niue and Tokelau are dependent territories. This means that those who are citizens of these countries are also citizens of New Zealand, and that MrPuna was never an overseas based borrower to start with.

IRD have belatedly acknowledged this – his alleged $120,000 loan was reduced to $30,000, now further less the $5000 he was forced to borrow from his family in order to be released from his imprisonment at the airport.

Higgins is appalled at the complete lack of due diligence in this case “If MrPuna was living within New Zealand territory why was he being charged interest? This is a massive failing from IRD. They have failed to do their job properly.”

"It's clear that MrPuna was not an Overseas-Based Borrower, it's not clear that he had not actually met his full obligation under the student loan scheme since New Zealand-based borrowers pay through the PAYE scheme. He may in fact have been arrested despite not being in default at all – even ignoring that IRD were sending reminder letters to an incorrect address."

Which looks like a pretty solid case for violation of freedom of movement and the right to liberty. I wonder how much that will cost IRD? But sadly, given the way this usually works, the incompetent staff who made this mistake will face no sanctions whatsoever, despite being responsible for a false arrest, $90,000 of student loan writedowns, and yet-to-be determined legal costs.

And OTOH, IRD won't care, because they've apparently gained an extra $7 million in repayments since the arrest as fearful borrowers pony up to avoid the same fate. Which looks an awful lot like proceeds of crime from where I'm standing...

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Incompetent, trust-abusing muppets

About the only legitimate function the NZ Security Intelligence Service performs is vetting for security clearances: making sure people can be trusted with important government information. They've already shown themselves to be complete muppets at the job, granting a top secret security clearance to an utter fantasist and another to a woman who lied about having a PhD, but now the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security has found that they don't properly safeguard the vetting information they collect either.

The full report is here, and its horrifying reading. Its not just about a lack of basic access controls and letting pretty much any SIS agent perve at any public servant's sex life, mental health history and finances; it also reports that there are

a range of other practices by which vetting file information is accessed for various purposes, some with access controls and some form of assessment of justification, and others without.
Even more worrying, from subsequent recommendations about how employers should not be allowed to use such information, it suggests that the SIS is providing this information to other agencies. Which is not what it was collected for. While its legal - the SIS has a total exemption from the Privacy Act - its a basic abuse of trust. Which is pretty much what spies do: abuse our trust.

This is a serious problem: vetting files have people's dirt, their vulnerabilities, which in turn can provide leverage to get them to spy. So obviously its bad if the SIS lets this information fall into the wrong hands. In fact, the only thing worse than them failing to protect it is them abusing it themselves - which reading between the lines, seems to be exactly what is happening. Unfortunately the exact details have been censored because they could "through a loss of confidence, impair Service capabilities". In other words, if we knew what was going on, we'd demand that people be sacked and/or arrested. But covering up that sort of incompetence and wrongdoing isn't exactly a way to build confidence either.

Finally, once again we're reminded that every single time an outside person looks at the performance of the SIS, they find it wanting on the most basic level. Every single fucking time. And we give these incompetent, trust-abusing muppets $50 million a year. At what stage should we decide that this is not money well spent, and disband the entire organisation? IMHO, about twenty years ago.

No symapthy for tax cheats

The revelation that New Zealand is a tax haven has naturally led to calls to be a good global citizen and stop enabling foreign tax cheats and criminals. But IRD disagrees. Why? Because some crooked lawyers might go out of business:

If New Zealand followed the norm and taxed the overseas income of foreign trusts then that might result in the end of the industry, Inland Revenue (IRD) says.

He said it was unlikely most of the owners of the nearly 12,000 foreign trusts in New Zealand would stay if those rules changed.

"The attraction I guess for those folks setting up foreign trusts in New Zealand is that by holding the assets offshore, they aren't taxed here.

"If we were to tax them, then maybe there wouldn't be foreign trusts here at all."

The industry is estimated to generate between $25 million and $50 million a year in New Zealand.

My heart fucking bleeds. Really. All those crooked lawyers having to do honest work for once. How sad.

But seriously: this is a matter of basic good global citizenship and collective defence against the rapacious, criminal 1%. New Zealand should not be part of this problem. Instead, we should be part of the solution: bust the trusts, drive the lawyers out of business, arrest the crooks, and make the rich pay their fair share.

Why we need to price water

On Monday, we learned that Ashburton District Council plans to sell 40 billion litres of pure water from an over-allocated catchment in a time of drought. Media commentary on this has focused on the over-allocation and drought issues, as well as highlighting how it undercuts the government's claim that "no-one owns water"; selling the right to extract is the same as selling the water for all practical purposes, especially when that water can then be onsold for profit. And its the latter point which deserves more attention, because it shows us just how much of a rip-off this is.

The buyer is believed to be a foreign water bottling company, who will bottle the water and sell it, no doubt leveraging off the "100% pure" New Zealand brand. Bottled water starts at $1 a litre and goes up (it easily sells for $3 or $4 per litre with the right branding), so what Ashburton District Council is effectively selling is the right to make $1.4 billion a year for the next thirty years. Even assuming a 1000% markup from production to retail, its still $140 million a year. Which is about five times more than the councils annual budget.

How valuable this income stream is depends on the discount rate. But plugging it into an online calculator at 4% says its worth $2.4 billion. Will Ashburton District Council be getting $2.4 billion for this? Like fuck they will. They'll be lucky to get a thousandth of that, and that foreign water bottling company will be laughing all the way to the bank.

And that's why we need to price water and charge for its useage: because its valuable, and not pricing it sees us utterly ripped off, our natural wealth privatised and sold, with the profits accruing to the buyers. A resource rental - making companies who use water pay for it - solves this problem, at least partly. It would ensure that the public were compensated for the use of public resources, generate a revenue stream for government, councils and iwi, and encourage conservation. Because at the moment, we are just being ripped off, and farmers and water bottlers are profiting from that theft.