Wednesday, August 24, 2016



Raiding the opposition in Australia - again

Back in May, during the election campaign, the Australian Federal Police raided the office of an opposition Senator in an effort to uncover a whistleblower who had embarrassed the government. And now parliament is back, they're raiding that too:

Plain-clothes federal police have entered Parliament House to search for evidence related to the leak of documents from NBN.

The AFP search warrant, obtained by Lateline, shows police want access to emails, records relating to Labor staffers and to news organisations including the ABC.

The development follows the AFP's search of the Melbourne offices of Labor Senator Stephen Conroy and the home of a Labor staffer over the leaks in May, during the election campaign.


Labor has asserted parliamentary privilege over the materials seized, so the government will have to win a vote in the Senate for the material to be released. Good luck with that. But by mounting the raid, they've sent a clear message that dissent and whistleblowing won't be tolerated - another sign of how Australia has become increasingly authoritarian under the coalition government.

Something to go to in Wellington

Peace Action Wellington and Changemakers Refugee Forum are holding a protest in Wellington tomorrow against Australia's torture and abuse of refugees. Speakers will include whistleblowers who have worked in the detention centre on Nauru.

When: 12:30, 25 August 2016

Where: Parliament, marching to the Australian High Commission

And remember: don't buy Australian

Member's Day

Today is a member's day. And when our esteemed MP's have finished getting pissed at lunchtime in honour of the departing colonial satrap, they'll get on to our business. There's a private bill first, which gives the government an opportunity to filibuster, but then its on to the committee stage of David Parker's Minimum Wage (Contractor Remuneration) Amendment Bill. And they're likely to make progress on the first reading of Peeni Henare's Customs and Excise (Prohibition of Imports Made by Slave Labour) Amendment Bill, and maybe a start on Catherine Delahunty's Public Works (Prohibition of Compulsory Acquisition of Māori Land) Amendment Bill. And if they get that far, there will be a ballot tomorrow for one bill. Hopefully we'll see some better efforts than Nuk Korako's "lost luggage" bill emerge.

Not COOL

Yesterday Education Minister Hekia Parata announced a major piece of education policy: closing schools and replacing them with online learning centres:

School-age students will be able to enrol in an accredited online learning provider instead of attending school, under new Government legislation.

The move has dismayed the primary school teachers' union who say education is about learning to work and play with other children.

The radical change will see any registered school, tertiary provider such as a polytechnic or an approved body corporate be able to apply to be a "community of online learning" (COOL).

Any student of compulsory schooling age will be able to enrol in a COOL - and that provider will determine whether students will need to physically attend for all or some of the school day.

Firstly, the idea of allowing more distance education isn't necessarily bad. There may be people who might do better under such a scheme, and there might be a couple of providers who could usefully supplement Te Kura in providing it at a primary and secondary level. It could be usefully looked at. And if the idea was coming from the education sector and driven by education professionals who were interested in outcomes and the welfare of those kids, it would be worth considering. But when it comes from an education minister whose sole priority in office seems to be trying to find ways to close schools, cut costs, and funnel public money to her private donors and cronies, its hard to view it as anything other than yet another means to achieve those ends. The logic for the government is just a little too naked: "schools are expensive and troublesome, so lets close them down, sack the teachers, and replace it all with online learning we can contract out to the lowest bidder / our donors". Yeah, nah. I'd rather have schools, sorry.

Hopefully this idea will be buried in a pit and the earth salted, along with every other idea Hekia Parata has ever had. If not, I pity the kids who end up as the victims of her cost-cutting exercise - and pity us when we end up paying for her mistake through the welfare, mental health and criminal justice budgets fifteen years later.

Open Government: The last minute

The SSC and Engage2 are currently conducting public consultation on New Zealand's second Open Government partnership national action plan. Suggestions for commitments close tomorrow (you can make them here), so naturally its the perfect time for the SSC to issue a press release announcing the consultation:

New Zealanders are being asked to contribute their ideas for ways government can improve its openness as part of the international Open Government Partnership (OGP) through an interactive online forum running until this Wednesday, or by coming along to a workshop in Wellington this Friday.

“New Zealand’s second National Action Plan is being developed and we are looking for New Zealanders’ ideas on steps we can take to make government more open, accountable and responsive,” says State Services Commission Deputy Commissioner Al Morrison.

“New Zealand’s government is internationally recognised as one of the most trustworthy and open in the world, but we can do better,” he said.

People need to get in quickly to contribute their ideas for actions to be considered for New Zealand’s second National Action Plan.


In case you're wondering, yes, this is the only press release SSC has issued on the consultation - and indeed the only press release it has issued on the OGP since it appointed its ill-fated Stakeholder Advisory Group last year. You'd almost get the impression that they don't want people to know about it...

The good news is that the co-creation site now has almost 70 proposed commitments. A few are duplicates, some are of questionable relevance and quality, but there's some good stuff in there, and certainly enough to be the core of an action plan. So now we get to see whether the SSC is really interested in co-creation, or whether, having asked us to do all this work for them they're going to round-file it and just do what they were always planning on doing, with the box successfully checked. And if its the latter, then I predict that the next IRM report is not going to look very good at all.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016



Something to hide

Back in June, the UK's Crown Prosecution Service decided that they wouldn't be charging anyone over MI6's complicity in the kidnapping, rendition and torture of Libyan dissident Abdul Hakim Belhaj. There's obvious suspicion that they were lobbied into making that decision by the British government. But oddly, the cabinet Office doesn't want to talk about it:

The previous month Reprieve submitted a request to the Cabinet Office under the Freedom of Information Act asking whether any of its ministers or staff had met or corresponded with the CPS about the investigation.

The Cabinet Office said it would not answer the question as it “could neither confirm nor deny whether any relevant information is held”. The department judged that this refusal was justified in the public interest to protect the enforcement of the law.

As well as running the prime minister’s office, mandarins in the Cabinet Office advise the PM and other senior ministers on intelligence matters. They also co-ordinate the government’s response to sensitive issues relating to the UK’s spies.


The natural conclusion is that the Cabinet Office feels it has something to hide on this, something which would not survive public scrutiny. And the obvious thing they have to hide is that they unlawfully interfered in a prosecution decision to protect themselves and the establishment from facing justice for their crimes.

Open Government: A flood of ideas

The SSC and Engage2 are currently conducting public consultation on New Zealand's second Open Government partnership national action plan. As part of this, Engage2 is collecting public suggestions for commitments through its co-creation site. While it had a slow start, the site has really taken off, with over 50 commitments now proposed. Not all of these are particularly focused on open government, some need development, and a lot of the recent ones are wooly and bureaucratic, but there's some good ideas in there. There's also some clear favourites: increased whistleblower protections, regulation of lobbyists (also here), improved OIA compliance, improved proactive release of official information and increased funding for the Ombudsman.

These themes will be turned into proper commitments at a co-creation workshop on Friday (which I sadly won't be able to attend). And somewhere in there, the government will have to choose which (if any) of them to adopt and advance as formal commitments. And that's the problem area. Because its clear that some of these proposals require serious political commitment to open government, and in particular to transparency and accountability, the aspects which directly threaten politicians. Its also clear that the National government does not share these values, and isn't particularly interested in advancing them.

It needs to. Not just because its the right thing to do, but also because the success or failure of our participation in the OGP will be judged on whether it adopts these commitments. The public and civil society have engaged in good faith with this process, and made it clear what we want. And if the government then pisses in our faces and ignores those demands, it will make a clear that the entire thing was a sham from the outset. More generally, if the payoff from engaging in this way is so low, then people will stop doing it. That might suit the government, but the cost of that will be surrendering any pretence of consent for its OGP policies (not to mention being kicked out of the OGP).

New Zealand is supposed to be a leader in open government. We've made it clear what we think that means. Its the governments job now to rise to the challenge.

Charter schools rip us off

Surprise, surprise - National's charter schools are ripping us off with high "administration" fees:

The country's eight charter schools paid their owners or related entities more than $1 million for administration and management services last year.

[...]

The financial statements showed the eight schools paid the organisations that own them or related companies as much as $360,000 for administration and management in 2015.

Collectively those payments appeared to have totalled at least $1.25m from total funding of about $14m last year.

Vanguard Military School chief executive Nick Hyde said the payments were no different to any other school.


...except for being much higher. Because this is how the private companies which run these charter schools make their profit (when they're not just outright stealing from the people of New Zealand)

This demonstrates the fundamental problem of charter schools. With a state school, every dollar we spend goes on education. With a charter school, the operator takes a slice of it for profit. This is by definition less efficient, and a good reason not to use this model.

Nothing to see here, move along

Last week Havelock North suffered from an outbreak of campylobacter in its town water supply. 4500 people - a third of the population - got sick, with over 500 registered cases. One person died. Its third world stuff, a basic failure by the city council to do its job, and the government has (rightly) announced an inquiry. But there's one thing they won't be looking at: cows:

Cabinet decided against a two-tier inquiry into Havelock North's water supply that would look at the broader issue of whether farm intensification is to blame.

[...]

Cabinet did consider whether to broaden the inquiry to include a second-tier, which would delve into wider national issues, such as farm intensification, and what effect it may be having on the country's water supply.

However, Prime Minister John Key said the terms of reference were already quite broad – but if the inquiry made recommendations on a wider front then the Government would listen to them.

"While there has been some intensification of farming in New Zealand without doubt in recent time, that's been happening for a long time and we haven't seen this issue anywhere else."


"Some" intensification? The number of dairy cows has almost doubled since 1990, from 3.4 to 6.5 million. The amount of shit they're pouring into our rivers has almost doubled as well. We're seeing cow-related bacteria in Patea, Hamner Springs and Christchurch. The Hawkes' Bay has been explicitly linked to ruminant animals, and has literally killed people. The government needs a better reaction than "nothing to see here, move along".

The dairy industry's cows and the resulting dirty waterways are now a direct threat to human life. We need to do something about that threat, before more people die. And if this government won't do it, we need one that will.

Monday, August 22, 2016



$1 million per refugee

That's how much money the Australian government has spent detaining and torturing refugees on Manus Island:

The detention centre on Manus Island has cost Australian taxpayers about $2 billion since it was reopened four years ago – more than $1 million for each of the 2000 people who have been imprisoned there.

[...]

While official figures relating to the cost of offshore detention are opaque, analysts in the Parliamentary Library have trawled years of Senate estimates hearing transcripts to piece together a total cost for Manus.

They show the centre has cost Australians at least $420 million to build and maintain, and $1.25 billion to run since the Gillard government reopened it in late 2012 – giving a total of more than $1.6 billion.

However the library's figures do not include the last year of capital costs or the last four months of operating costs, estimated to add hundreds of millions more. The figures also do not include the costs of resettlement, charter flights to and from the island, or the additional aid spending Australia has directed towards PNG in exchange for hosting the centre. Much of the money has been lost to corruption.


Its a ridiculous amount of money, and utter waste. Bringing these refugees to Australia and integrating them into Australian society would have been far, far cheaper (and they'd have 2,000 dedicated citizens to boot). But then I guess the Australian government wouldn't be able to win votes from racists.

New Fisk

Turkey's hit list of enemies is growing as Erdogan prepares to buddy up with Putin in Syria

More unconstitutional over-reach

In the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes, the government turned New Zealand into a legal tyranny, granting earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee the power to rewrite virtually any law with a stroke of his pen, without having to go to Parliament. The law was a constitutional outrage which has now fortunately expired, but it seems to have given the government a taste for Henry VIII-style dictatorship. And now they're doing it again (though on a smaller scale), introducing a SOP to the Taxation (Business Tax, Exchange of Information, and Remedial Matters) Bill to allow it to be rewritten at will by the Minister.

What emergency justifies this constitutional outrage? An earthquake? An epidemic? Something else threatening the life of the nation? No. The "justification" is that IRD is getting a new computer system, and they're not sure that it is compliant with the law.

The solution here, of course, is to make that system compliant with the law, rather than rewriting the law arbitrarily to suit. But that apparenly would be too difficult for IRD and its overpaid contractor, so they're going to piss all over our constitution instead.

The separation of powers is a fundamental constitutional principle in this country. Laws are made by Parliament, not the executive. And that is not a principle we should give up lightly. Its certainly not one we should sacrifice simply because IRD doesn't think it can properly manage an IT project. This unconstitutional amendment must be binned, and the people who advocated it binned with it.

Friday, August 19, 2016



Open Government: As little as possible

The SSC and Engage2 are currently conducting public consultation on New Zealand's second Open Government partnership national action plan. Engage2 is busy collecting suggestions for commitments through its co-creation site, and running workshops to gather more. But the timeline doesn't include any time to properly develop those proposals into actual policies, and the suspicion is that at the end of the "consultation" all the public proposals will be round-filed and the actual action plan will consist of whatever ambitionless bureaucratic pap SSC has been developing in the background. There's been some hints about SSC's hidden agenda in previous OIA releases, but thanks to an OIA I received back today, we now have a better picture.

I had asked SSC for agendas, papers and minutes of both its newly appointed-in-secret Expert Advisory Panel, and its OGP Officials Working Group. Surprisingly, they released them urgently. As expected, they show that SSC is keen to use the OGP to push its Big Brother "social investment" agenda (in which all the private information the government holds on you, from tax records to whether you've ever had an abortion, is thrown together in a pile so that it can be mined for random correlations in order to find better ways to cut services). But they also suggest some other possible commitments:
OGP-SSCSuggestions

Very obviously, this is the expected ambitionless bureaucratic crap - and the absence of any commitments around the OIA (even the low-hanging fruit of implementing the Law Commission's recommendations) is glaring. Charitably, they're trying to push participation, but if you look at the public proposals, they're very strongly focused on transparency and accountability, with strong support for greater regulation for lobbyists, improved whistleblower laws, and improved OIA compliance. SSC's agenda is completely out of touch with what civil society wants.

There's also a lack of ambition. SSC is looking for "a focused set of five to seven commitments". The OGP meanwhile recommends "that each action plan contain between 5 and 15 ambitious commitments" [my emphasis]. SSC is clearly aiming for the lower end, both in number and ambition. In other words, they're looking to do as little as possible, and treating the OGP as a matter of technical compliance rather than a "race to the top". Again.

Russia heads back to the dark ages

A Russian MP wants to "decriminalise" domestic violence. Yes, really:

Ultra-conservative Russian MP Yelena Mizulina, best known for successfully introducing for the law banning so-called gay propaganda, introduced a new bill to the State Duma in July proposing the decriminalisation of violence within families.

“Battery carried out toward family members should be an administrative offence,” said Mizulina, who is chair of the Duma committee on family, women and children’s affairs and is now a senator in the Federation Council, Russia’s upper chamber of parliament. “You don’t want people to be imprisoned for two years and labelled a criminal for the rest of their lives for a slap.”


Except of course it's not "a slap": its serious, pervasive violence. 36,000 Russian women are abused by their partners every day. 40% of all violent crime in Russia is domestic violence. If an MP suggested that they "decriminalise" violence by organised crime, they'd be laughed at. And yet apparently the idea of decriminalising violence by men against women gets taken seriously.

The scary thing is that Russia is such a bigoted society at the moment that this could actually pass. The mere fact that it is being discussed tells you that there is something incredibly wrong with their society and their political system.

A blow against the private prison industry

The USA this morning announced that they were ending the use of private prisons in the federal prison system:

The US Justice Department will phase out use of privately owned prisons, citing safety concerns.

Contracts with 13 private prisons will be reviewed and and allowed to expire over the next five years.

"They do not save substantially on costs and ... they do not maintain the same level of safety and security," Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said explaining the decision.


Federal prisons are a small proportion of the US prison-industrial complex - most prisoners are held by states, not the federal government. still, its a powerful signal, and has been enough to send the share prices of these misery providers into freefall. No doubt they'll spend a lot of money on lobbyists to keep the states from following suit - but the precedent has been set.

Meanwhile, you have to ask: how long will we tolerate private prisons in New Zealand? Mount Eden has been a disaster, and there's been no suggestion Wiri is saving any money (while leading to accountability problems). Shouldn't we follow suit and ban private companies from our prison system?

New Fisk

The Shias are winning in the Middle East – and it's all thanks to Russia

We don't need the GCSB

John Key's latest spy legislation passed its first reading in the House yesterday, and is off to select committee. They'll no doubt be calling for submissions soon, but I'm not sure whether it is worth wasting time on. The last committee into a spy bill notoriously didn't even bother to read the public submissions it was sent, and with a National majority on this committee, there's no reason to believe that it would be anything other than a government rubber-stamp.

Which is a shame, because this bill needs fixing. Listening to the speeches yesterday, it was clear that the government's thinking on expanding GCSB powers in particular was muddled. First, they claimed that the GCSB needed the power to spy on New Zealanders to cover cases where the SIS couldn't get a warrant because they didn't know who to spy on. Except that the GCSB also needs warrants, and would need to know who to spy on - so that excuse only holds water if the law enables mass-surveillance, something the government denies. So which is it?

The other major excuse for the GCSB's expanded powers was "cyber". MPs are deeply scared of the internet and the sorts of hoodie-wearing people who hang around on it, and think we need a government agency to counter these dastardly cyber-criminals and protect our private information from Evil h4ck0rs. And you know, they're right. Except that that agency does not need to be an intelligence agency with intrusive surveillance powers and legal immunity from prosecution.

The "information assurance and cybersecurity" function is the GCSB's sole legitimate function. The problem is that it is in direct tension with the agency's intelligence functions. A cybersecurity agency wants to find security loopholes and publicise them so they can be fixed. An intelligence agency wants to keep them secret and un-patched for future exploitation for intelligence purposes (something which has just backfired messily on them). A cyber-security agency would regard the NSA and GCHQ - foreign intelligence agencies whose purpose is to compromise our information systems, steal our data, and spy on our citizens - as enemies to be countered. The GCSB regards them as friends to be courted. The GCSB's intelligence function - which according to the Prime Minister comprises most of its workload - compromises its cybersecurity function. And so they need to be separated.

Instead of the GCSB, what we need is a completely civilian agency, an expert cyber-defence team. And instead of operating covertly and with government approved warrants, it would operate by consent. Such a team wouldn't need secret warrants to do its job, because people would ask it to. And it wouldn't need legal powers to dictate network architecture and hardware choices, because people would trust its recommendations rather than regarding them as a thinly-veilled front for NSA hackers. And with a clear focus on cybersecurity and a statutory prohibition on any intelligence gathering, it would be free of the suspicion which taints the GCSB. As for the intelligence function, we should shut that down, sack its staff, destroy its files, and throw its equipment in a volcano - because it serves no legitimate purpose in a free and democratic society.

Thursday, August 18, 2016



Australia tortures more children

Another day, more images of Australian prison guards torturing and humiliating children in their care...:

Images of alleged mistreatment at Townsville's Cleveland Youth Detention Centre have emerged, prompting calls for the royal commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention to be extended to Queensland.

One series of CCTV images obtained exclusively by 7.30 shows a boy, 17, being held face down by five adults. He was handcuffed, ankle-cuffed, stripped naked then left alone in isolation for more than an hour.

The incident was prompted by the boy refusing to have a shower.

Images from another incident caught on CCTV footage show a girl in a swimming pool being threatened by security guards with an un-muzzled dog.


The images are from reports from Queensland's Youth Detention Inspectorate from 2013 and 2015, but have been kept secret until now. Which just shows the pointlessness of secret, internal inquiries. The abuse and humiliation was detected, reported, and then covered up, because exposing it and punishing the perpetrators would have made the government look bad. And that's just not good enough.

Sedition in India

Last weekend Amnesty International held a meeting in the Indian city of Bangalore to discuss human rights abuses by Indian forces in Kashmir. During the meeting, some of the attendees began calling for "Azadi" - freedom. So naturally, they're all being charged with sedition:

Amnesty India's project manager Arijit Sen said a right-wing student group lodged a complaint, and police filed charges, known in India as a first incident report, or FIR.

The FIR reportedly mentions a number of offences, including sedition, unlawful assembly, rioting and promoting enmity.


I can think of no better example of what sedition laws are for: to suppress criticism and dissent of an authoritarian, nationalist government. And its a perfect example of why such laws are incompatible with democracy and need to be repealed.

Kiwisaver funds which invest in cluster bombs should be prosecuted

This morning, the New Zealand Herald revealed that New Zealand kiwisaver funds are consistently making unethical investments in companies on the New Zealand Superannuation Fund's blacklist. Those companies are involved in the tobacco industry, international human rights violations, and nuclear weapons manufacture. That's unethical, and kiwisavers should be getting upset about it and applying pressure, but it gets worse. Because they're not just investing in nuclear weapons, but in cluster bombs - and that's illegal:

A Herald investigation has found funds run by three KiwiSaver providers, who collectively have more than 400,000 members, have investments in companies making cluster munitions.

A number of Westpac-managed funds - including the balanced, conservative, growth and moderate funds and the CPP Funds numbered one through five - were listed as holding shares in Northrop Grumman Corporation, General Dynamics and Textron worth a total of $1,552,660.

AMP disclosed investments worth $572,703 in Textron and General Dynamics by its aggressive, default, growth, moderate, balanced, moderate balanced, cash and conservative funds.

Aon's Russell LifePoints funds - including balance, conservative, growth, and target dates 2015 through 2055 - disclosed $192,136 worth of investments in General Dynamics.


Section 10(2) of the Cluster Munitions Prohibition Act 2009 imposes a penalty of seven years imprisonment or up to a $500,000 fine on anyone who " provides or invests funds with the intention that the funds be used, or knowing that they are to be used, in the development or production of cluster munitions". These funds appear to be violating the law, and they need to be prosecuted for it. Investing in cluster munitions isn't just unethical, it is also a crime, and the law needs to be enforced.

Meanwhile, isn't it time the anti-nuclear law was updated to include such language as well?