27 July 2013

What's good about the GCSB Bill?

Cyber-crime, cyber-warfare, and hence cyber-surveillance, like it or not, are here to stay, and will inevitably grow in sophistication. Read here, for instance, about what may be the biggest hacking crime ever, and that could have affected ordinary credit-card holders like you or me. Two good things about the GCSB Bill are: one, that we are getting clearer (though far from perfect) law governing this shadowy business (that is, clearer than the Act passed by the Labour-led government); and, two, that we are having a very vigorous public debate about an organization that, before Kim Dotcom's arrest, most New Zealanders had probably never even heard of. In other words, we are having a public debate about the acceptable limits of policing and of spying, and that's good.
Given the global nature of cyber-crime and terrorism, it is naive to think that the GCSB's signals and cyber-intelligence capabilities should categorically never be used to spy on New Zealanders. There is no reason to believe that New Zealand citizens or residents will never be involved in cross-border cyber-crime or terrorism, and it would be plain stupid of us not to use all the resources we have available to prevent or detect such activities. The important proviso, as with any form of policing, concerns adequate legal safeguards and judicial oversight, so that such capabilities are not being used for political purposes, or as a just-in-case surveillance drag-net to fish for criminal or hostile activities. The GCSB Bill lacks oversight and warranting provisions that are sufficiently independent from the Prime Minister to satisfy me (and many others) that the agency's powers can be kept in proper check. All it takes is another Muldoon...
The Bill needs to ensure that it will be transparent to us when our private communications (including metadata) may be intercepted, for what purposes, under what legal constraints, and with what forms of public and judicial oversight. Secret policing is a subject about which, by definition, we cannot know in its operational detail; but the public need to be able to satisfy themselves that the boundaries of such policing go only as far as necessary for our security, and that they respect privacy and other fundamental rights. 'Trust us, we know what we're doing' and 'the innocent have nothing to fear' are mere words and need to be backed up by legal mechanisms and sanctions.
The rush to pass this GCSB Bill may be necessary for short-term operational reasons, but rushed law-making is always likely to be poor law-making, and a tea-break right now to allow time for a public inquiry and debate does sound sensible. In any case, I'm sure that this controversial law will be amended further in the future as the political debate rolls on.
One good thing in the Bill (that few critics have commented upon) is the clarification of the process for appointing the GCSB's Director. The present s 9 of the Act simply states: 'The Director of the Bureau is appointed by the Governor-General.' The GG acts on the advice of the responsible Minister, the PM, and so it is a simple prime-ministerial appointment that does not need to involve the State Services Commissioner or anyone else. The Cabinet Manual, however, has a requirement that the Commissioner is to be involved, and so the Bill is aligned with that. The SSC will manage the recruitment of the Director and make a recommendation to the PM. The appointment is made by the GG, on the advice of the PM, as before, but the legal requirement to involve the SSC will mean that the post is less likely in future to be a military old-boys' jack-up. We are more likely to get well qualified, experienced public servants on the job.

19 July 2013

Great unwashed threaten to air their employers' laundry

Speaking of measures that legalise poverty-level wages, the NZCTU has threatened to lay a complaint with the ILO (International Labour Organisation) over amendments to the Employment Relations Act, presently before the House.
David Low of the Employers and Manufacturers Association was overheard on National Radio objecting to this proposal by trade-union leaders, arguing that we don't want to see 'our laundry washed on the world stage' - by which he surely meant 'our dirty laundry aired on the world stage'. While putting a perfectly good metaphor through the wringer, he did at least admit that the Bill is indeed dirty laundry, potentially damaging to New Zealand's reputation, if aired in faraway Geneva, and hence in need of a good wash. He may want to do a whitewash, but, while he's at it, he could scrub up his English.

Welfare, poverty and politics

Data-sharing between MSD and IRD has exposed 3,139 welfare beneficiaries who were earning more than they were reporting to WINZ, and whose benefits have been cancelled. Putting this in perspective, out of a total of just under 310,000, this is about 1 percent of working-age beneficiaries who have been found cheating the system. The government is also cracking down on beneficiaries who test positive for drugs and those who have outstanding arrest-warrants. I suspect that the actual numbers of these are also relatively small. The intense publicity around these punitive measures tends to damn the whole population of beneficiaries with the transgressions of small minorities of them; but it is politically convenient for the National-led government to be seen to be 'cracking down.' You can be sure that projected reductions in numbers on welfare will be trumpeted ahead of the next election. The public largely approve of tough welfare policies – in spite of the protestations of those who want New Zealand to be more compassionate and egalitarian and who point to a shortage of jobs, and the state's unwillingness to create employment, in the current climate. And so it's effective centre-right politics to beat up the tougher sanctions and controls over beneficiaries. If those policies and the publicity around them frighten some potentially valid applicants away from the welfare offices, I doubt that the government will regret that.
The recent 'reforms' to welfare are certainly significant, but they continue a trend that began in the late 1980s, to reduce taxes on higher incomes, to cut welfare entitlements, and to make social-assistance conditional upon work-readiness and job-seeking. The low incomes and intense surveillance of beneficiaries make life on a benefit uncomfortable, and their precarious status forces them to accept jobs on low wages – an easy route to increased profits for businesses. An MSD summary of the Household Economic Survey tells us that '2 out of 5 poor children come from families where at least one adult is in full-time work or is self-employed.' Their parents are the 'working poor.' While welfare beneficiaries are, predictably, concentrated in the low-income brackets, many people with jobs can be found there too. The ideological attack on welfare beneficiaries supports politically the economic 'efficiency' achieved by employers who pay poverty-level wages, as well as a fiscal strategy to reach a surplus.

Auckland mayoral race: A dry run for 2014?

Punters are placing odds on Len Brown to win the Auckland mayoralty as if it were a done deal. In 2010, Len Brown won just short of 49% of votes for mayor, and John Banks 35.7%. The new and untested right-wing candidate this time round, John Palino, could do well from conservative voters in leafy suburbs who are outraged by the draft unitary plan's emphasis on higher density and taller structures. Len Brown, on the other hand, faces a possible drop in support from his South Auckland base, due to competition from the Rev Uesifili Unasa and, on the left, John Minto, and also if poorer voters refuse to vote, given that nothing much has improved for them in the last 3 years.
While John Minto will undoubtedly be an also-ran for the mayoralty, the election gives him and the Mana Movement a chance to test support and raise their profile among lower-income urban neighbourhoods, something they have to do if they are to have any chance of more than one seat in the House after the 2014 general election.
For quite different reasons, I wonder if John Palino's candidacy isn't also a test-run, to see if conservative voters are not bothered by his American origins and to profile him as a future prospect for parliament.

14 July 2013

Will the real Muldoon please stand up!?

Former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon (1921–92; PM 1975–84) has become the whipping-boy of New Zealand politics. Recently, Russell Norman of the Green Party caused a stir by comparing John Key to Muldoon, leading to counter-accusations that, far from Key resembling Muldoon, it's Norman who is the real 'Muldoonist.' Russell Norman is now feeling vindicated by Audrey Young (of the NZ Herald) who has written that John Key's recent, rather threatening, comments against the Human Rights Commission are reminiscent of Muldoon, and so perhaps Norman was right after all.
Let's not forget that Helen Clark's parliamentary opponents were fond of accusing her of being like Muldoon too, due to her reputation for keeping a close watch over pretty much everything. That's ironic, given that Muldoon led the National Party during nearly nine glorious (or inglorious) years in office. But then, the same cynics of the Clark years used to call the Beehive 'Helengrad', invoking the ghost of Josef Stalin, a really brutal dictator who makes Robert Muldoon look like a mewling kitten.
So, who was the real Muldoon, why was he such a baddy, and who deserves most to be compared with him today?
(For those who don't recall those times, I refer you to the online biography by Barry Gustafson.)
Muldoon was loved by many for his 'strong' leadership, and loathed by many for his 'abrasive' and 'divisive' style. He is remembered for strong regulatory controls over the economy, for fomenting discord over the Springbok Tour, for using newly-formed 'riot-squads' as pawns in his political strategy to win the 1981 election, for abusing executive powers, and for circumventing constitutional conventions and safeguards. On the latter point, his behaviour was so wicked that the subsequent fourth Labour Government felt compelled to pass the Constitution Act 1986, just to spell out some of basic principles of law.
Russell Norman's point about John Key being like Muldoon was aimed at such excesses of executive powers and at constitutional impropriety. The preferential deal with Sky City over the convention centre is an obvious example. A less well-known one is the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Amendment Act 2013, passed in a single day following the Budget, thus denying the public the right to make submissions on it. This Amendment deals with the successful human-rights case of family-caregivers for severely disabled persons who claimed that the Ministry of Health's policy denying them payment as carers was discriminatory. While allowing those claimants to seek remedies, the Act bars any future complaints or court proceedings based on discrimination arising from the amendment and any family-care policies made under it. In short, this ignores the separation of powers and bars the citizen from testing in court whether his/her right to freedom from discrimination (under the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990) may have been breached in similar circumstances in future.
Another example of 'Muldoonism' might be the government's efforts to legalise the use of the GCSB, a foreign-intelligence agency, in domestic policing. This is a dangerous step, as it could bring a secret-service agency into an arena in which we normally expect under-cover surveillance to be judicially warranted, and all evidence against an accused to be presented in open court, once charges have been laid. We should not trust Prime Ministers and secret-service agents to do the job of policing in an open and democratic society. We don't want to become a 'police state.'
And so, who is the real Muldoon? Or, are people using his name in vain, as a fake bogey-man, representing any use or abuse of executive powers that they happen not to like at the time?
You be the judge. I'll just conclude that this all reinforces my point about why we need to have a written constitution, as a safeguard against abuses of powers. See my post Should NZ have a written constitution?

07 July 2013

Labour's gender woes

Which is worse? Reporters speculating about a change of party leader, or a pointless public row about gender-exclusive candidate selection? Either way, the Labour Party has been the author of its own woes (again!)
Maybe another day I'll venture into the tricky territory of the party leadership. Today, I'll navigate the minefield of gender-inequality and politics...
First, some facts about the numbers in the Labour caucus. Fourteen out of 34 Labour MPs are women. That's 41%. Not bad, as it's above average for Parliament as a whole (in which one third of MPs are women).
There's surely some merit in aiming for a 50/50 gender balance: it makes the caucus more representative of the population, and it signifies that selection processes do not discourage women from participation. But the problem is how to get there. Looking at the difference between Labour's list and electorate MP's is instructive. Among the list MPs it's 50/50 male/female (six of each). But among the electorate MPs, there are eight women (36%) and 14 men.
You don't need a degree in maths to see that the area needing attention, if an overall gender balance of numbers in caucus is the aim, is the electorates. Why should the party list have to be used as the 'ballast' for getting an equal weighting of women into the House? There's a range of competing 'diversity' and other aims that the list has to meet.
The selection of electorate candidates is a competitive process. There are likely to be internal factions and favourites, but selectors also have to think about which candidate voters will back. A smartly-dressed, articulate wasp-ish male may look like the 'safest' bet, if thinking about appeal to local voters. But, by no means all of Labour's electorate MP's fall into that category, so not all electorate selection processes can be conservatively biased in that way.
A gender bias in the way we perceive others means that both men and women judge women more harshly than men for adopting tough or authoritative opinions and behaviours. Women university lecturers, for instance, get judged more harshly by students (of both genders) for being 'tough'. Women, it seems, are expected to be 'nice'. Men get away with 'tough'.
Then there's the Gillard experience. Julia Gillard bravely said recently that, in spite of the hatred and misogyny aimed at her, she has made it easier for the next woman, and the next etc. Well, yes, but her experience is also highly off-putting for the potential 'next woman leader'. In business and in politics, women leaders are publicly scrutinised in quite different ways from men. Her looks, her figure, her sexuality, and even the sexuality of her partner, become matters of intense speculation for male and female reporters and readers, in a way that would not apply to a white man in a dark suit. This double-standard is unfortunately coupled with an alarming animosity that spews forth from the loony minority of embittered cave-men who simply hate any powerful woman. These men are so insecure that any form of feminine power makes them fear castration. Freud would understand; but Shane Jones's recent reference to geldings illustrates the point well enough for now.
Further, it has become fashionable to dismiss any kind of affirmative action these days. Many women (let alone men) disavow or reject anything that might look or sound 'feminist'. Indeed, one gets a lot of mileage in the media if one ridicules any such ideas. After all, women can cut it in the real world of competitive business and politics, and it is argued that they don't need protective or special measures any longer. Such opinions are upheld even in spite of the evidence of real-world inequality of outcomes across gender.
Back to Labour, then: A provision allowing local electorate committees to ban male candidates from selection processes is too blunt a means to achieve the stated goal; and it could have negative consequences if the selection process gets a bad press and voters lose confidence. Surely there are other means to develop and encourage women candidates and leaders, without inviting ridicule.

06 July 2013

Pike River compo reports need to be more accurate

Reports that the government has paid no compensation to the families of the victims of the Pike River mine disaster have not taken account of all the facts. (See for instance stuff.co.nz). The claim comes after the findings against the Pike River Co, under the Health and Safety Act, in which the judge ordered $3.41 million in reparations to the families of the mine-explosion victims, and following the advice from the company's receiver that there was a mere $156,000 left in the kitty to pay out.
I'm unable to find an up-to-date figure on how much compensation to the families has actually been paid so far by the state. But, the ACC's 2011 Annual Report advises that: 'As at 30 June 2011, over $790,000 in assistance had been provided in the form of funeral and survivors’ grants, income maintenance and child care payments' due to the Pike River explosion. That was less than eight months after the disaster, and the sum would have increased substantially since then. It would be good to hear more up-to-date facts from ACC. (But I'm sure ACC would rather keep out of this debate!) Anyway, that's what ACC is for: automatic statutory compensation without having to prove negligence in court.
Once the inquiries and prosecutions are all over, it is predictable that pressure on the government will result, however, in a special payment of compensation to the families of the victims. A precedent has been set by the special payment to families of the victims of the Cave Creek tragedy – although, in that case, a government department was responsible for the faulty construction that caused the accident. It may well be politically expedient for the government to make a similar gesture in due course for Pike River, especially before the 2014 election. After all, the government's loose regulation and inspection of mining was partly to blame.
Money, of course, can never truly compensate for such devastating losses. But most people probably agree that special payments by government can serve as a recognition of the unfairness and magnitude of the loss and as a partial recompense, made on behalf of the New Zealand public.
Due to the ACC law, the families and the two survivors of Pike River are unable to sue for compensation for personal injury in any New Zealand court. Were that not the case, then the families may well have pursued the company's directors, or NZ Oil and Gas, as major shareholders in Pike River Coal, for further compensation. But such civil actions for negligence (in countries that allow them) are unpredictable and costly, so there'd be no guarantee of a successful outcome.
Let's not forget too that many more workers are killed and maimed at work each year, and that they don't get special payments from the government over and above ACC and (when there are successful H&S Act prosecutions) court-awarded reparations.