Wednesday, February 18, 2015

There Are Some Things Money Can't Buy: For Everything Else, There's Ministerial Credit Card

Question: When is a minister not responsible for expenditures using her ministerial credit card that breach Parliament's rules?

Answer: When there's a conveniently positioned employee ready to take the fall and shoulder the blame.

Now while it's entirely possible that Bennett keeps such an incredibly lax eye on the way the taxpayer-funded resources she's responsible for are used that an employee was able to draw out an illicit 1.2 grand unnoticed by any but the bean-counters ... I find this a little unlikely.

As Minister for State Services, if Bennett can't even keep abreast of her own small demesne of Ministerial Services, it speaks woefully of her competency. Given the official narrative is now coalescing around the idea that the scape-goat employee in question drew out the money to fund personal spending, the fact this person is still working in her office is quite frankly incredible - assuming that explanation is true, rather than a ministerial dodge.

I noted with some interest that when asked directly whether the withdrawal had been carried out by an errant employee to fund personal expenditure, Bennett was evasive.

"Well if it had been an appropriate ministerial spend they would not have had to repay it, so you can put two and two together" is not exactly a direct answer, and in reality clarifies virtually nothing. I also cannot help but note that Bennett has scrupulously avoided clarifying that the expenditure was either unknown to her or not tacitly approved by her in any of the coverage of this matter I've read thus far.

In a previous age, John Key championed extensive transparency with the use of ministerial credit cards, claiming that "the result of this public scrutiny will be that ministers will be even more careful with expenditure of their staff's credit cards in the future".

He even suggested that the "untidy and careless" oversight of then-Housing Minister Phil Heatly when it came to the latter's own ministerial credit card warranted the minister's stand down from his portfolio.

Funny that he's not demanding that sort of accountability now. Is this because she's the closest thing National has to a future prospect for leadership now that has Judith Collins become spilled milk?

If Bennett's ministerial credit card had been used to illicitly take more than a grand of taxpayer money while she was Minister of Social Development, I'd have pointed out that a beneficiary helping themselves to a similar amount of taxpayer coin would very likely have found themselves in court if not prison. As it is, if the people of New Zealand are to have confidence that the Minister for State Services is capable of exercising oversight over said services ... we need to see some tangible evidence that she's capable of fronting up, accepting responsibility for resources and employees under her control, and delivering accountability where appropriate.

The buck, after all, stops with the Minister. No matter who takes it out of the ATM.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Defend the National Library from National

I've got a bit of a confession to make. I Love Libraries. Not E-Readers, online repositories, over-used class book sets, or glorified literacy-encouragement tools (although all of these are useful and have their place) ... I mean *actual* bricks-and-mortar books-and-more-books storehouses of knowledge and facilitators of learning.

I grew up in libraries; still live in one today; and am resolutely of the opinion that having easy access to literally tens of thousands of tomes on just about every subject conceivable was vital for a younger Curwen's learning and personal development.

It was therefore a cause for considerable surprise, shock and dismay when I was contacted by a teacher-librarian working at a local secondary school about proposed changes to the way the National Library system works.

In years past, teachers and librarians have been able to supplement the resources directly available to them by hitting up the National Library through Curriculum Services and ordering supply-crates of often highly specialized books for classroom use. If you're outside the education system, such a facility may not sound like much; but in my own experience - and those of the educational professionals I've talked to - it's proven invaluable in ensuring our kids have access to the information they need in a format that's useful and accessible to them.

And no, despite Peter Dunne's protestations to the contrary, you can't just expect kids to make do solely by trying to track down and access information via the internet.

While I fully applaud the National Library making greater use of digital vectors to enable students and teachers to access its resources; the decision from on high that this approach should be pursued at the expense of having physical books available for dispatch to where they are needed strikes me as being less about making sure our kids get the informational support they need ... and more to do with the fact that kids reading books via the internet costs the government less than sending crates of books around the place. (The net fiscal impact of the policy as a whole is a rather theoretical saving of $392,000)

In an ideal world (which, given who's in power, this obviously isn't), the National Library would be pursuing a "both" rather than "either" approach which didn't blithely assume all students, schools and classrooms were equally able to make use of online or digital resources. Despite the government pushing "e-learning" and "digital literacy" as educational mantras with all the fervor of somebody who's willing to try *absolutely anything* other than properly paying and valuing teachers as a means to boost educational outcomes, not every child has access to a digital device in the classroom, and not every classroom has reliable ongoing access to the internet. This is particularly the case for schools in rural and lower-decile areas, who may find themselves effectively double-penalized by the relative paucity and difficulty of access to equivalently resourced alternative libraries in their home communities.

Unfortunately for whichever bureaucrat or bouffant-wearer dreamed up the policy, I'm not even sure this shift away from the provision of physical resources will actually save the government money. As the School Library Association of New Zealand thoughtfully points out, the system that's been in place for the previous aeon made economic sense because it had the high-use and high-demand books required year-round and in bulk (whether fiction or non-fiction) being bought by schools and school libraries to be used immediately and extensively by their students. The National Library, by contrast, concentrated its efforts on acquiring the specialized and supplementary materials that individual schools were likely to only require in small numbers (if at all), and far less frequently.

The new system, by contrast, will reportedly feature the National Library buying up masses of popular fiction in print copy to be shipped round the country in the name of fostering "reading engagement" (something school libraries do anyway, and with the added bonus of not having to wait for other schools to return the resources first), leaving schools to purchase the less frequently used and almost invariably rather expensive specialist texts required to fully support the NZ Curriculum.

Even setting aside the obvious issues with having the stuff that's going to be ubiquitously in-demand and over-subscribed year-round kept at a central repository and only available to a given school on a rotational basis, a moment's consideration will reveal how this new approach makes little to no sense from either a librarian's perspective or an accountant's - let alone from that of the poor, long-suffering teacher!

Given the number of obvious issues and oversights with this policy, it should surprise absolutely no one that it appears to have been developed without a single iota of consultation with either schools or school librarians. Sadly, this kind of callous disregard for the input and perspective of education professionals is part and parcel of National's approach to making decisions concerning the education sector.

The National Library - and, for that matter, the presence of books in schools - is both a treasure and a treasure-trove. Attempts to relegate either to the past in the name of a few cheap savings would be (to borrow a phrase Peter Dunne used to describe his critics on this matter) "comical if they were not so tragic."

Friday, February 6, 2015

Key's Hypocrisy in turning Waitangi Day into an even *bigger* monument to Anglo Imperialism


I must confess I was a little surprised to see the Prime Minister turn our national day into a forum for discursions about invading the Middle East. Perhaps, having made peace with Titewhai Harawira some years back, he assumes no foe is now insurmountable.

But quite apart from the questionable propriety of turning a monument to arguably one of the least-worst incidences of British imperialism into a soap-box for justifying our involvement picking up the pieces of a more recent and far more egregious example of same ... what stood out to me was this quote.

"So the very people who tell me their whole DNA is laced with human rights and standing up for people who can't protect themselves tell me to look the other way when people are being beheaded by kids, burned by kids and thrown off buildings. Well, sorry. Give me a break. New Zealand is not going to look the other way."

Which is, I suppose, a noble (if entirely inaccurate) sounding sentiment in principle - if we leave aside the legacy of international peace-keeping, nation-building, and Afghanistan-occupying efforts of the previous Labour government, for instance.

But not, regrettably, one that is borne out either by Key's recent actions as applies the Middle East (New Zealand's laudable Security Council effort at assisting and defending Palestine being a commendable exception) or his newfound choice of friends.

Let us be perfectly clear about this. The Anglo-American "family of Nations" that Key wishes us to step-(son)-toe into have a litany of egregious human rights issues to answer for themselves. Extraordinary Renditions, illegal wars, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and all the rest of it.

I'd take Key's more recent lip-service commitment to acting as the champion and defender of human rights a helluvalot more seriously if I'd seen clear and compelling evidence of him standing up for same when the violations were being committed by his golfing-partners, rather than merely cited as a cassus belli of convenience.

Oh, and just to add insult to injury ... here's a photo of New Zealand "looking the other way" when it came to *another* Middle Eastern regime that specializes in decapitation-based-theocracy...

He justified it on the basis that "Saudi Arabia has been part of the Western Alliance for a very long period of time, standing up against ISIL and Al Qaeda and others."

So that's alright, then.

My inner pedant wishes to note that the Islamic Republic of Iran has *also* taken an exceptionally strong stand against both ISIS and Al Qaeda (and have inarguably done *far* more against either than the recalcitrant House of Saud) ... yet you don't hear Key citing them in effusive terms by "[acknowledging their] contribution [to] global affairs".

To cut a long-winded rant short ... I reckon it's far better for one to loudly, proudly and authentically proclaim that one's "whole DNA is laced with" a commitment to human rights and empowering or defending the marginalized than to simply don the language of international justice and the Colour of Right as a cloak of mere rhetorical convenience while choosing to tactfully overlook other, closer to home, instances of problematic conduct.

But then, I suppose that's just ... how did Key put it? Ah yes. The "Price of the Club" that we now apparently belong to.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Reporter Gets Mad At Somebody Else Questioning Government

Pity Andrea Vance.

Over the course of the last Parliamentary term, she's seen her star chart a curious trajectory; from up-and-coming foreign-import reporter, to a perceived manipulator of the questionable judgement of older men, and on to being the unquestioned victim of an egregious breach of privacy through governmental witch-hunt.

Through it all, she's maintained an interestingly intensive scrutiny on my beloved New Zealand First.

Considering the causitive role of one Winston Peters in exposing Vance's source for some of the more *ahem* confidential elements in her GCSB coverage, you can perhaps understand (if not necessarily forgive) her for holding a bit of a grudge in our direction...

It was therefore no great surprise when I checked the bottom of a recent Sunday Star article that began with "NZ First MPs [...]" and ended with a snidely critical tone, to find Vance's name attached to it.

Now let's get one thing clear. New Zealand First MPs are *paid* to act as a trenchant and tireless critic of bone-headed governmental policies. One of our chief roles as the *leading* Opposition party is to ask questions, call to account, and generally shine a spotlight of scrutiny on *whatever* latest iniquity the government is trying to pull.

While we can all agree that things have gotten pretty average when the fourth estate decides to take a month off in order to let one occasionally Quixotic political party and a somewhat arcane author at an Indian literary festival temporarily take over its proffered role speaking truth to power at the government's expense ...

... you'd still expect at least a *little* gratitude from the Parliamentary Press Gallery's quarter - and some positive affirmation of the fact that NZF MPs have kept working at improving our Nation all through the summer, while others have been either at the beach or all at sea.

Unfortunately, no such luck from Vance. She starts off by declaring we were merely "shouting into [the] void"; then bizarrely starts criticizing Ron Mark for *doing his job properly* and tapping into righteously rancorous public sentiment against the manifestly ridiculous Zero Tolerance speeding policy pursued by the police.

Seriously. She *literally* attempts to criticize Mark for giving voice to popular public sentiment against the government; and then finds fault with attempting to hold the relevant Minister responsible to account! Both things that are, I'm pretty sure, entries number 1 and 2 on the List Of Things Opposition MPs Are Supposed To Do With Their Time.

It's almost as if the thing that's *actually* annoyed Vance here is the idea that NZF MPs are capable of taking demonstrably sensible positions that resonate with the electorate ... and acting independently and outside of her tired cliche that we all must inexorably exist within Winston's shadow.

Vance then goes on to defend the totally inadequate handling by our Navy and Foreign Affairs ministry of the recent Antarctic Toothfish poaching incident, portraying the execution of *absolutely standard* naval procedure in encountering and apprehending pirates or plunderers as "bonkers logic" and some sort of act of unjustified and perilous aggression against a "starved slave crew".

Just what, one wonders, would Vance have had our Navy do to uphold our international obligations under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or when encountering *other* instances of illegally flagged rogue vessels rampaging through a marine sanctuary under our watch - especially, for that matter, when the ships in question penetrate our own territorial waters.

Is she one of those people who feels, for instance, that the Japanese ought to have free range to go a-whaling in our territory..? How does she think that piracy off Somalia ought to be dealt with..? What does she make of the Australian Navy's no-nonsense approach to same? Does she even understand the point Mark was making about manifestly potentially deficient Rules of Engagement?

Matters then proceeded from the super-silly to the supercilious when Vance attempted to take Prosser to task for his remarks on the ecological impacts of 1080 poison drops.

There are legitimate positions to be taken on either side of the 1080 debate, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention the litany of previous *personal* disagreements as applies environmental policy I've had with the man on everything from climate change to fracking (thankfully, none of which appears to be reflected in Party policy) ... but on the matter of mass aerial poison-drops causing flow-on effects *well* beyond what's intended when it comes to our native birdlife populations, the man's reasoning is *rock solid*.

1080 is *designed* to be taken in by various introduced rodent and marsupial critters. It's well renowned for taking awhile to kill, and reducing the ingestor to an agonizing and drawn out termination. During this time a slow-moving and impaired prey-animal is going to be a much more obvious - and thus, edible - target for the languid and lazy talons of our famously less-febrile birds of prey. The idea that a dead rodent or possum might be feasted on by a native bird of carrion is, similarly, entirely self-evident. And you can imagine what happens once the poisoned-meat enters their system... (a narrative chain of causation I had confirmed in the course of researching this article by chatting with a conservation expert specializing in the preservation of our hawk populations)

In light of this, Vance's demand that the MP produce a "rock wren corpse" as evidence that 1080 can have undesirable impacts on native bird populations makes a turkey not out of Prosser...

In any case, the most revealing bit of Vance's "expose" isn't any of her stabs at our party's press releases.

Instead, it's the rather telling line about how "desperately bored journalists" attempt to "drown out other voices".

I believe this is what's known in psychological circles as an "exercise in projection".

Oh and, as applies her last line ... while I'm sure she's relishing the thought of going back to Winston-centric coverage, rather than paying attention to the output of a half-dozen competent NZF MPs ... No, Andrea - calling to account the journalistic output of an import such as yourself is *not* the same thing as Xenophobia :)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The (Neoliberal) Luminaries

Oh dear.

There is a culture in this country of giving altogether undeserved praise, legitimacy, and privileged pride-of-place to certain high-powered (and demonstrably talented) spinners of fiction.

Not the writers or other cultural contributors who seek to enrich our nation when it comes to the arts, you understand ... I mean the tawdry old-boys club of politicians and political-commentators whose sweeping scale of involvement in the arts and culture of this country appears to be to turn up at the awards ceremonies, and then either passively ignore - or actively rubbish - those self-same artists they were photo-opping with as soon as they become politically inconvenient.

This is exactly what's just happened with Eleanor Catton.

Now, I've got something of a confession to make. I have never read, nor am I likely ever *to* read, anything by Catton. From where I'm sitting, while it's great that she's internationally recognized and now something of a household name ... I get *quite* enough in the way of door-stopper tomes of elaborately astrological New Zealand fiction every time I read a Treasury report.

But I'm sure I wasn't alone in expressing an actual and vocalized CHEER when I cast my eye across her reported comments that we find ourselves subjugated by a government of "neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians" who have, at best, an economic appreciation for culture.

Catton may feel "uncomfortable" acting as an intellectual ambassador for New Zealand in light of all of this - but as far as I'm concerned, anyone prepared to boldly and openly state *exactly* what a large swathe of us are thinking like that, is a prima facie *excellent* representative for the views and aspirations of thousands of Kiwis.

Of course, the sad inevitability of sticking one's head above the parapet in hostile ideological terrain, is that somebody will attempt to snipe it off.

And no sooner had Catton's remarks about the marshy shallows of our public culture and sphere been processed by the domestic equivalent of the arse-end of Fleet St, then the snap-back reaction had begun.

It started (somewhat curiously) at the top, with the Prime Minister ... who took time out from a busy schedule of hijacking/politicizing sporting events and accepting electoral endorsements from rugby stars to tell Catton off for "mixing politics with some of the other things that she's better known for" (assumedly what she got wrong was mixing in Green rather than Blue politics with being a public figure...). He then suggested that despite National's well-signaled intent to have less New Zealanders pursuing Arts degrees - rather than those famously literary pursuits of science and engineering - his government's record on the arts was fine because they'd once turned up at a book-fair.

Finally, to cap it all off, he vehemently proclaimed that he was not, no way no how, "profit-crazed".

And while a cursory examination of the man's ruinous record when it comes to maximizing returns from the state's asset base does certainly seem to suggest he isn't very *good* at being profit-crazed ... it also occurs that the sort of man who would rather skip all his lunch-breaks and piss in a bottle instead of taking even a minute off from his quixotic pursuit of making money ... well ... what else do you call the money made, but "profit", and how else to describe the behavior than "crazed".

About the nicest thing I can say concerning John Key on Eleanor Catton, is that if he suddenly feels that his government's policies are able to contribute to the success of some New Zealanders in one area ... then it's only a hop skip and a jump of realization from there to his grasping that the policies of his government in *just about every other area* are capable of holding back New Zealanders from success in others.

The relative level of cerebrality displayed in Key's response (I stress I said *relative*) was not, however, matched by the commentary from alleged National Party media trainer/communications advisor Sean Plunket ... who started out by branding Catton a "traitor", and then decided to strain the credulity of a nation by pretending he'd used a somewhat obscure Te Reo insult when it became patently obvious that calling one of New Zealand's foremost literary figures an "ungrateful whore" was a quick way to being Paul Henry'd.

You'd quite honestly find less in the way of infantile outbursts down the *other* Plunket.

I'm not going to get into the philological ins and outs of what Plunket may or may not have said (except to note that much of the alleged "factual" content invoked was just flat-out wrong) ... but whether Plunket intended to slur Catton as a "fruit", "ovaries", a "bugger" (or, possibly, some word of a feminine inflection starting with C), a person whose head ought to be boiled and eaten, or someone whose cranium was forcibly inserted into one's posterior ... or, for that matter, as the rest of Plunket's diatribe makes out, someone who receives money in exchange for services and then doesn't properly flatter the hander-out of coin (which sounds *awfully* close in implication to "whore", now, doesn't it...); there is no translation, imputation, or bilingual sleight-of-hand which renders Plunket's comments on Catton an appropriate broadcaster's response to a measured political criticism.

By coming out and attacking Catton herself on the basis of her party affiliation, her place in the New Year's Honours List, her position as a taxpayer-funded academic - and just about everything else possible apart from the actual and manifest truth of her remarks ... Plunket & Key have unwittingly managed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the vacuity and pettiness of our political classes as highlighted in Catton's initial comments.

Frankly, I'm hella-glad Catton's had the gumption and wherewithall to come out and say-what-we're-all-thinking ... because at the moment, it really does seem to be the case that when it comes to matters of culture and criticism, some of our leaders and opinion-shapers appear to have all the depth of the Windsor gene-pool.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

OIA ... TPP? FFS!

Back in December, my comrade Harley Greenbrook decided to take the notion of open and transparent government seriously ... and OIA'd Minister of Trade Tim Groser asking for anything and everything the Minister and his cohorts had on the TPPA (and, in specia, the drafts of the agreement themselves).

The response he got back was, quite frankly, laughable.

Now, given some of the recent and highly publicized incidences of a certain (sorry ... *cetacean*) private citizen repeatedly OIA'ing the government and getting back *exactly* what he asked for - occasionally even *within the hour*, and *particularly* when it came to what was supposedly classified or otherwise extraordinarily sensitive information ... Harley could, perhaps, be forgiven for expecting a similar level of *actual* response to his OIA request - rather than a paltry effort at abjuration that would disgrace the name of Thomas Jackson by referring to it as "stonewalling".

National's pretense of transparency around these issues is particularly galling given Groser's confusing assertions in the letter that his government has been "open about the issues under negotiation" - or, more outrageously, that "the consultation processes for the TPPA have been among the most extensive a New Zealand government has undertaken for any trade negotiation."

Oh really?

Given that National has fiercely resisted releasing the draft text for the TPPA - and thus, the scope and detail of the actual issues under discussion - even to Parliament (or, for that matter, lowly blog-based-citizen-journalists and other concerned citoyens) ... I'm not *quite* sure how Groser's curious statements square up with reality.

How do you meaningfully "consult" on something when the people you're allegedly consulting with have no idea about the contents of the thing they're being consulted on?

What's "open" about being continually asked to blindly trust National's assurances as to what's really in there? I mean, it's not like they'd have any demonstrable and vested interest in *lying wholesale* to the People of New Zealand in order to get the damn thing passed, is it? (Or, for that matter, a track-record of doing *exactly that* when it comes to other controversial legislation)

Why are they so incredibly eager to avoid any genuine transparency or scrutiny when it comes to the terms of the TPPA?

Would Cameron Slater have been more successful than Harley if *he'd* filed an OIA on the subject...

[If you don't get why taking the government at its word about the TPPA is an issue, then the next few paragraphs are for you. For everyone else who's *already* fundamentally distrusting of our government's machinations as standard operating procedure, skip straight ahead to the heading marked "OIAs".]

One of the reasons more than a million New Zealanders voted to change the electoral system in 1992, was because we were fulminatingly fed up with the fundamentally feudalist attitude to consultation and accountability displayed by each of the "big two" parties when it came to implementing myopic and manifestly masochistic economic policy.

We learned the hard way that if they're trying to pass controversial or unpopular policy with far-reaching consequences, neoliberal governments *will* attempt to obfuscate and outright lie to the electorate in order to get the job done. (Labour, for instance, tried to invoke a deity called TINA to tell us that there was no alternative to innovatively applied economic destruction as a tool for "reforming" our economy in the 1980s; while National promised us in 1990 that they'd "Roll Back Rogernomics" ... then gave us Ruthanasia instead once we'd voted for them)

That's why the advent of MMP was so vitally important for constraining the neoliberal agenda; and why National was so incredibly eager to try and ditch it back in 2011. Because in a world where the government feels it can relegate notions of democratic accountability down to the harvesting of an apparently quasi-carte-blanche mandate in a figurative box-ticking exercise once every three years instead of meaningfully engaging with the electorate ... it nevertheless remains (somewhat) answerable to Parliament. And, in contrast to willfully misleading the electorate, Misleading the House is something which posses actual and immediately enforceable consequences.

By refusing to release the terms of the TPPA to Parliament (despite other countries not exactly renowned for the transparency of their politics like Malaysia and the USA seeing the wisdom in letting their legislatures take a look at what they're signing up to), the government is attempting to render impotent the main effective check or tool of scrutiny which the People of New Zealand have on the implementation of whatever new neoliberal nonsense National now appears hell-bent on signing us up for this time.

And, in situations such as the present one wherein the faculties and institutions of our Parliamentary political process appear to be rendered less able to protect us due to deliberate incapacitation through sabotage from on high ... that doesn't mean we simply surrender and allow the government of the day to do as it pleases.

I'm a great believer in the creedo that when the orthodox and institutional political system appears to comprehensively drop the ball on an issue, it's the right and responsibility of the ordinary citizen to rise up and attempt to fix the situation.

(As an aside, this is one of the reasons why I'm an cautious advocate for a greater role for Direct Democracy in our system - as it affords an avenue by which popular opinion can circumvent complicit marginalization by pliant parties in Parliament. Given that it was precisely this sort of deliberate failure by the major parties to immanentize widespread popular opposition to Rogernomics and Ruthanasia that lead to over a million disgruntled Kiwis attempting to achieve with their votes in the 1992 electoral reform referendum the halt to the neoliberal revolution that their regular FPP votes in every election from 1984-90 had frustratingly failed to deliver; it makes a certain degree of sense to explore ways to let the electorate work *around* the Parliamentary parties *without* having to go straight for the nuclear option and threatening to overturn the electoral system entirely)

OIAs.

By filing his OIA and making an official demand for transparency on the TPPA from the government, that stepping up and unto the breach is exactly what Harley has done here.

Admittedly, given the fairly broad powers granted to officials under s6 and s9 of the Official Information Act 1982 to withhold information from applicants, getting access to the draft text of the TPPA through this mechanism was always incredibly unlikely. Although I also note that Harley's OIA didn't just request the drafts, but instead "all documentation" relating to the TPPA that the relevant Minister might have to hand.

This is a clever trick that may allow you to get something useful out of an OIA request even if the main focus of your inquiry is blocked from being released to you. Another one is to ask for a *list* of all documents on that subject held - which, apart providing helpful targeting information for your next OIA, also tells you handy things like whether they've bothered requesting cost-benefit or legislative impact analyses on a policy and what not (and therefore how far along a policy is, and how seriously they're taking it). A third idea that's particularly useful when OIA'ing the more *ahem* secretive government agencies, is to ask for the deletion date of files pertaining to information you're pretty sure they *should* have, or *did* have, yet which appears to have vanished off into the ether. I believe those last two suggestions fall into the category of "metadata analysis" :D

In retrospect, tightening up the phrasing on that part of Harley's request might have been a wise move to minimize the Minister's wiggle-room for playing silly buggers by ensuring that the specificity and particularity requirements under s12(2) were incontrovertibly met; but given Harley's quite clearly asked for "all documentation, including drafts related to the [TPPA]", rather than what appears to be the Minister's understanding that he was just after the draft, he might be able to take a crack at an appeal to the Ombudsman under s28. The grounds for this would be the Minister's office choosing to interpret the wording of his request in a manner that's arguably quite different in ambit to what he'd plainly intended and explicitly asked for. Which helps to illustrate why it's important to get the wording on your OIA right. The boffins charged with responding to OIA requests are, entirely unsurprisingly, highly malicious literal-genies when they think they can get away with it.

Now some of you might be asking - if it was always a virtual certainty that Harley's OIA would go nowhere ... why bother filing one on this subject in the first place? Particularly given there's a perfectly good (if a little outdated) series of draft chapters and other material to be found over on Wikileaks if you're actually interested in getting a rough sense of what National's engaged in signing us up to.

Well in most cases, one reason to first ask the legitimate source nicely instead of heading straight for the illicitly acquired material is for the sake of accuracy and completeness. There's apparently about 29 chapters in the TPPA, of which only a precious few have found their way out into the public domain via Wikileaks. Further, the material available on Wikileaks mostly dates from 2013 or early 2014; and it's entirely possible that those parts of the agreement have changed in important ways in the interim. While we've got very little choice when it comes to sourcing material from the TPPA, this nevertheless demonstrates that attempting to rely exclusively on unofficial sources doesn't always give you a full - or even entirely accurate - picture of what's going on.

It's also a matter of fairness and principle. Where there's a standard and established legal process by which to approach the government for official information, the moral and ethical thing to do (yes, there are such things in politics) is to start with that. Using the legal avenues also tends to be considerably less technically demanding/paranoia inducing than donning a white hat and trying to construct your own Raw-Shark-Tank.

Oh, and if you want to be ruthlessly pragmatic/trolly about it ... officials have a statutory duty under the Official Information Act to respond to your request. Previous miscreants have noted this and taken to filing dozens if not hundreds of individual (and slightly different, so as to prevent time-saving cookie-cutter responses) OIAs at particular targets in attempts to snow them under with requests that require not just a cursory letter of acknowledgement back (which is basically all you're entitled to get as the result of merely contacting an MP or Minister without invoking a specific statutory duty on their part), but the sparing of actual man-hours of time for the relevant staff to go off researching on your behalf (and therefore, stalled productivity on something *else* that your target's up to).

At the very least, by making an OIA request of the government on a contentious subject like this; you're making something of an official protest about the way the TPPA has been handled. Because every OIA request is logged and registered, the government is able to tell how many of them are going to particular ministries or departments, and on what issues. (A fact which became rather amusing and demonstrably useful for people who *weren't* the government when somebody had the bright idea of OIAing a list of the OIAs handled by the Ministry of Justice over the last 3 years with a view to catching FailOil & Judith playing in-House. See how *incredibly cool* these OIA things can be with a bit of creative thinking?! :D ) The resultant data gives them a crude barometer as to what issues out there in the electorate are riling people up enough that a mere mundane letter of protest to the ministry or minister doesn't cut it.

A sudden spike of thousands of OIA requests to MFaT querying the lack of transparency around the TPPA would definitely not go unnoticed; and there's a certain pleasing symbolism to the idea of street-protesters and online activists stepping into the realm of officialdom to engage the enemy with its own customary weapons of statute and bureaucracy.

Having said that, while persons such as myself who've got a Parliamentary Services background or longstanding political experience tend to feel reasonably comfortable deploying OIAs; I imagine that the idea of making the magic spell work by grappling with statute, doing a bit of targeting research, and then having to wait a month or more to find out if you've done it right renders the whole exercise a little more daunting for the average Kiwi. 

That's why I'm incredibly grateful for the existence of services like fyi.org.nz; which simplify the process down and make firing off an OIA something that's easily doable by just about anyone.

If you're interested in giving it a go yourself, it's not terribly hard to track down examples of successful OIAs to template yours off; and when it comes to the TPPA, there's certainly no shortage of contentious points to query about.

Obvious suggestions include: requesting documentation containing tangible evidence as to the benefits to NZ from joining (and, for that matter, the costs); asking for material covering what mechanisms (if any) the government intends to put in place to protect itself from lawsuits by foreign companies; or going after any information held by the Minister that establishes why Malaysian and American lawmakers are allowed to scrutinize the TPPA before signing, while their NZ MP counterparts are afforded no such privilege.

While the odds that you'll get a sane and sensible answer to just about any OIA on the TPPA are not exactly stellar; the point of this form of protest is to demonstrate that in the absence of readily afforded transparency, you will *demand* it.

And, just as importantly, that we point-blank *refuse* to accept, as my good friend Alex Fulton put it, the notion that the entire point of the OIA is "to deliver politically convenient material to the allies of the sitting government."


Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Questionable Assumptions of Anne Tolley about Beneficiaries

Oh dear. Is there any Ministerial portfolio that Anne Tolley *can't* embarrass herself in.

I've just listened to the interview she did Friday with Duncan Garner, and good grief.

Here's how Tolley attempts to explain unemployment in her electorate:

"Up the East Coast it can be a pretty good lifestyle ... at times it looks pretty good. Especially at this time of the year - a little bit of Dole, and they have a cash crop, and good kaimoana. It's a pretty good lifestyle. So it's a pretty tall ask sometimes to convince people like that that they should be working 5 days a week and earning their money when they haven't had to and they haven't seen anyone in their family have to do that."

Hark; is that a racist dog-whistle I hear yonder...?

Let's be honest. When Tolley talks about kaimoana-gathering, dope-growing, intergenerationally-unemployed beneficiaries on the East Coast, the "people like that" she's referring to are Maori. Or, rather, what she *thinks* of Maori. (In my experience, the invocation of stereotypes almost invariably indicates *far* more about nature of the the stereotyper than the group being stereotyped)

And while it's true that Maori have been disproportionately done over by three decades of neoliberal economic malaise (as of 2013, 80.3% of beneficiaries in Gisbourne and 56.8% in the wider Hawke's Bay were Maori, for instance); the fact that the Minister can't proffer a better explanation for this than 'they've picked up a cool-looking lifestyle their parents showed them' betrays the trademark and woeful lack of vision, empathy and understanding of the issues that we've sadly come to expect from Tolley.

To her credit (and my frank surprise), she rejected Garner's goading use of the term "Bludgers", and explicitly acknowledged that the vast majority of Kiwis drawing an unemployment benefit *do* in fact use the welfare system as intended to support themselves through tough times rather than a means to fund an "alternative" lifestyle.

But the implicit message in the rest of Tolley's words seems all too clear. National will trumpet till the dairy-farm ownership comes home *any* reduction in beneficiary numbers as evidence they're capable of doing something about unemployment (even if the *actual* reduction in the number of "work ready" Jobseeker beneficiaries from this time last year is only 2,217 - while more than half the remaining negative 10,000 is attributable to the litany of potentially non-employment related reasons why one might stop receiving a Sole Parent Support benefit). But when pushed to explain *why*, if they're so good at job-creation, there's still more than 300,000 Kiwis reliant on welfare for their daily bread ... all they have to offer is "it's not our fault the stats include lazy Maori and the disabled/long-term impaired. Ignore them. They don't matter. Everything's peachy on Planet Key!"

I'll save for a future post a more in-depth commentary and analysis on why it might be that some beneficiaries may feel they have to resort to the proceeds of crime or relying on nature's bounty rather than the state in order to feed their families. In the mean-time, if you're one of the nearly 70,000 "work-ready" Kiwis still on an unemployment benefit who're having difficulty finding gainful employment ... Marie AnTollynet has this suggestion for you: "Let Them Pick Kiwifruit."

Great she had a such a "fabulous" holiday.

[My thanks to Simon Noonan & Andrew Paul Wood for their assistance with this piece]