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]

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Toothless Navy Defends Toothfish

Pity the NZ Navy. For years, they've found themselves underfunded, undermanned, and under-resourced. Their latest seagoing acquisition was a converted roll-on-roll-off ferry whose seaworthiness makes Kiwirail's Aratere look like a pinnacle of safe transport. The deadliest vessel in the fleet is, tragically, an inflatable dinghy.

And now, they find themselves confronted by an implacable and apparently insurmountable foe: three rusting Chinese fishing vessels, caught red-handed in the midst of plundering an area of ocean under our supposed protection.

The Navy's attempted to ask nicely to board the rogue fishers in question. We've reportedly sought - and been granted - permission from the ships' flag-country (Equatorial Guinea) to go aboard and check their flag-status and that they're operating within the law. There's even apparently mounting evidence including an actual statement from Equatorial Guinea itself that these guys are conducting themselves illegally.

By all rights (in specia, our observation and inspection powers as set out in Article XXIV of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, as well as the rights codified in Articles 117 and arguably 110 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), these vessels should be yielding and allowing us to board and search them. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear, right?

Instead, they're leading us on a merry dance through a protected fishery; taking advantage of hazardous conditions and evasive maneuvers to prevent our Navy from exercising our legitimate right to board and inspect their catch.

These acts of avoidance, rather than purely the conditions themselves, are what's lead to Foreign Minister Murray McCully relaying the judgement of the Wellington's captain that it's unsafe for us to attempt to forcibly board the vessels in question; assumedly via RHIB rather than utilizing the Wellington's Seasprite helicopter. (Presuming, of course, that the Wellington's Seasprite wasn't one of those we flicked off to the Peruvians last year and which won't necessarily be replaced until mid-2015) This is fair enough. I'm not a seaman, and I defer to the superior nautical experience of those highly trained professionals presently deployed to the area who *are*. It is, after all, their lives rather than mine that would be put at risk in any resulting enforcement action.

However, this isn't the first time our Navy has cited the hazardous nature of the Southern Ocean as a justification for its inability to carry out its charged duties. Way back in 2013, the Navy *actually suspended* its patrols of our protected Antarctic Fisheries in exactly the same ocean because its ships just simply weren't up to the task of policing them.

Perhaps *this* is why the task of defending the cetacean population of the waters under our apparently rather nominal protection falls to civil society groups like Sea Shepherd, rather than our Navy. (As an aside, we're so *incredibly* incensed about this ruinous and embarrassing state of affairs here in NZ First Youth that we submitted policy-remit and proposal to our Party back in 2013 calling for NZF to strengthen and properly resource our Defence Force to appropriately defend our "Tangata Moana" from foreign predation)

It also leads to the fairly obvious question of what, if anything, our Navy feels it actually *can* do in situations such as these to enforce the Law of the Seas and uphold our international obligations and duties under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

As far as I'm concerned, by pillaging a protected fish-stock that's under the aegis of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (and therefore, by extension, our good selves as party to the relevant Convention), these foreign vessels are engaged in acts of outright piracy, as defined in Article 101 of the UNCLOS. (I've included the slightly twisty legal logic underpinning my use of that term below in a footnote for the legal eagles in the audience to pick over at their leisure)

While this would give us a prima-facie right of seizure under UNCLOS Article 105 (and, indeed, would justify my *preferred* solution of basically avoiding the boarding action altogether and escorting both ships back to a New Zealand port at cannon-point for processing); it's disconcerting in the extreme that our Navy seems powerless to give substance to our international environmental obligations when it comes to enforcing the law against unarmed fishermen.

Barring a further escalation on the part of the Wellington, or the diminishing possibility of either fishing vessel actually choosing to surrender and submit to boarding ... there doesn't seem to be any clear resolution to this situation at hand. In the words of Murray McCully, "We don't know what evasive action the vessels might now take." Which strikes me as politician-code for "they're very likely to attempt to pull a runner" - leaving us pursuing dry-land legal action rather than fugitive vessels, and trying to catch up with the culprits via Interpol in their wake.

Given the failure thus far of our Navy to remedy the issue, at first glance you might be forgiven for feeling heartened that we also have legalistic and judicial avenues with which to try and deal to the blaggards in question.

But we've been down this road before. McCully's described the ships in question as "repeat offenders", and it turns out that at least one of the boats in question has previously been detained by our Navy.

Evidently, the legalistic approach is not an effective deterrent - and, as ECO NZ eloquently put it, the size of the book McCully's actually able to throw in the direction of the perpetrators is, to put it bluntly, pretty slim.

This is why I'm advocating the actual outright seizure of these vessels under piracy laws. Not impounding - full-blown confiscation. Crusher style. No boat? No repeat offender boat. It's as simple as that. (Although I fully acknowledge that dealing to the organized criminal syndicates behind these boats is a rather more complex and intractable matter)

And then, once we've properly resourced our Navy, we can consider pulling the same trick on the next Japanese whaling "research" vessel that strays into our waters :D (Incidentally, I've always wondered what, exactly, they're researching. Best answer I've heard so far was supplied by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in Good Omens - "[they're] currently researching the question: how many whales can you catch in one week?")

In any case, this affair has, for me, raised and reaffirmed far broader questions about the capabilities and operational readiness of our Defence Force. If we're struggling to deal with rust-buckets crewed by unarmed fishermen (in admittedly challenging operational conditions), how are we to expect our Navy to protect and police one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world?

For the record, I don't blame the brave men and women of our armed services *one iota* for this; and instead feel that they're being asked to undertake difficult and dangerous tasks with equipment and resourcing that's frankly just not up to the duties we've assigned them to carry out.

You can guess whom I *actually* hold responsible for all of this - the same tactical geniuses down the Beehive who thought it'd be a brilliant idea to grab a roll-on-roll-off-ferry designed for short freight runs across the Irish Sea and tart it up as being appropriate for patrolling the storm-wracked Southern Ocean; before splashing out on expensive and defective NH90 helicopters designed to operate off said ferry (but only in "certain safe sea state conditions", and with acknowledged difficulties operating on Southern Ocean sea patrols)... without actually purchasing the automated folding rotor capacity that would actually allow them to properly do so.

We are no longer living in what Helen Clark once termed a "benign strategic environment"; and it's high time that our elected leaders acknowledged that uncomfortable fact and supported the Forces accordingly.

The game-changing strategic implications and security realities of something like climate change, for instance, mean that we simply can no longer afford to treat our defence capabilities as just another "balance sheet item", to be scrimped on every time National feels like waging a war on spending. (It has also occurred that with literally tens of millions of dollars worth of repairs, refits and retrofittings required on just about *every* new piece of kit we decide to acquire el-cheapo or just because Australia's doing it ...the cost-is-the-main-object approach to Defence procurement pursued by each of the "big two" parties doesn't *actually* save us money in any but the shortest of terms. Indeed, in the medium-to-long term, it's demonstrably quite the opposite; and has already cost at least one life)

Even if you're somebody for whom the "defence" aspect of our Defence Force appears decidedly less important than the Forces' demonstrable utility in the fields of peacekeepinginternational humanitarian aid, search and rescue, or upholding our ecological and conservationist values by pursuing the Japanese around a whale-sanctuary ... there is simply nothing to be gained from having an under-resourced military. Given our quasi-thalassocratic aspirations as a maritime nation astride one of the world's largest EEZs and located right on the doorstep of the world's largest ocean (replete with some of its most important and vulnerable marine sanctuaries), the continual maltreatment of our Navy is especially galling.

In any case, while I'm justifiably proud to hail from a Party that's always taken an unapologetically serious line on defence policy; I also genuinely feel that the issues touched on in the latter half of this blog are too important to be approached in a purely partisan manner.

If there can be an upshot to the increasing frequency and salience of incidents like the one presently unfolding down in the Southern Ocean, I hope that it's a renewed recognition from *all* parties of the vital roles played by our Defence Force; and a corresponding commitment to properly supporting, funding, and acknowledging same.

Because the extant status-quo of government "making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep/ [because it's] cheaper than them uniforms, and they are starving cheap", then forcing the Forces themselves to shoulder the blame for the resulting disastrous outcomes *cannot* be allowed to continue.

[Mega-thanks to Andrew Paul Wood for his quite literally tireless assistance with this piece]

Footnote:

(For those legal eagles of you in the audience (Hi David), here's the twisty bit. Article 101 of the UNCLOS officially defines "piracy" in international law as including "any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew [...] of a private ship [...] against property".

In order for me to make out that these fishing vessels are, in fact, engaged in acts of piracy (thus allowing our Navy to seize their craft under UNCLOS Article 105), I therefore need to establish that what these guys are wrongfully taking is, in fact, "property". This is a little more difficult than it first appears due to the nature of the agreements governing the area in question.

Nevertheless, Article IX (2) of the CAMLR Convention establishes that the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources exercises a considerable and exclusive swathe of powers over the protected area's fish-stocks, territory and other associated concerns - including the right to apportion harvesting rights to other parties, allow or restrict access to the territory, and otherwise govern the use of the resources contained therein.

This, to my mind, is a "bundle of rights" that is prima-facie analogous to the rights of property which an individual - or, more properly, a state-like entity - is able to exercise over resources or territory under its control. The more appropriate term would probably be something along the lines of Kawanatanga, or guardianship ... but regrettably, those terms don't yet appear in the UNCLOS.

In any case, if the Commission is able to create opportunities for the accrual of property rights by transferring harvesting rights for fish stocks to other parties; then it naturally follows that in instances wherein no such legitimate transfer has occurred, the rights to access for the resource (and thus, the implicit property rights and usage rights for same) will remain vested (or, if you prefer, naescent) in the Commission itself.

The plundering of toothfish stocks in the area governed by the CAMLR Convention, then, represents a straight-up interference in the putative property rights exercised by the Commission; and provides a persuasive (to me, at least) Colour of Right/Claim of Right justification for treating the activities of these illegally operating fishing vessels as "piracy" for the purposes of UNCLOS Article 101.

Which therefore enables our Navy to seize their boats under UNCLOS Article 105 and carry out vitally necessary enforcement action without having to wait around for the relevant flag-nation to decide what it's doing.

The other way to argue this in more philosophical terms would be to advance the claim that the protected fisheries and species of the Southern Ocean represent a manifestation of that much-vaunted principle, the "Common Heritage of Mankind"; as vested in and protected by the CAMLR Commission. The collective property rights of humankind are therefore interfered with whenever a fishing boat deprives us of that heritage and gestalt property right by illegally harvesting from those fish stocks and making private property from that which was once collectively held. I make *absolutely no claim* to this latter justification having even a shred of legal accuracy, but it sounds rather nice and noble on paper.

It's probably also important to state at this juncture that I don't have more than about half a law degree; have never actually been taught any Law of the Sea/Admiralty Law - or, for that matter, international law or treaty interpretation; and have generated the entire above spiel running off precious little else than spending a few hours yesterday evening with Google and an even less formally legally qualified (yet brilliant) research partner. So um ... don't try and commandeer a rogue fishing vessel on the basis of this opinion or anything.

But damnit, the orthodox legal avenues don't seem to be doing a too terribly flash job at delivering the right outcomes here; so I thought I may as well at least have a go at puzzling out a solution. It would certainly make for an interesting test case.]


Friday, January 9, 2015

You Wouldn't Brand Yourself With #IAmWhaleOil ...

Yesterday morning, social media woke up to the sad recurrence of a morality play that we've seen staged time and time again. While I could just about generate a bingo scorecard to cover the array of instances which invariably accompany this sort of thing (the checklist including angry defenders of Freedumb Of Speech At All Costs; pundits *demanding* the Muslim community comes out and overtly *condemns* heinous acts carried out by a few extremists, without extending the same imperative to more mainstream religious communities in analogous instances; debate over "failures of assimilation"; confused armchair prognostications about the extent to which "Religion of Peace" is an appropriate epithet for Islam; and, more darkly, what shape the inevitable reprisals and far-right political capitalization will take ... to name but a few); there's one particular theme I want to focus on in this piece.

The inevitable canonization of a Martyr for Free Speech which invariably seems to accompany these sorts of things.

Now lest I be misinterpreted wildly, it's vital at this point to state that in no way, shape, or form do I condone the killing of twelve people in response to the frankly turgid output of a satirical magazine. Particularly given some of the victims, like Frédéric Boisseau, appear to have had absolutely nothing to do with the magazine's actual output; and instead appear to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

*Nobody* should die for bad satire; or for poor or controversial writing. (I state the latter two with a certain degree of self-interest in mind)

But at the same time, I was a little disconcerted to note how quickly and uncritically scores of my friends on social media were adopting the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie (or similar variations).

I can well understand a capacious enthusiasm for the value of freedom of speech. It is, after all, *exactly* what I am privileged enough to be exercising right here on this very blog; and something which our political culture here in New Zealand has considerably benefited from.

I can also understand, and empathize strongly with, the strong sense of revulsion which accompanies reading an account of two masked gunmen threatening the life of a toddler before identifying individually and by name those ordained to die - in a manner akin to Cinna the Poet, for their bad verses.

But that does not mean the developing hagiography of Charlie Hebdo has to be *entirely* uncritical.

That wonderful virtue of freedom of speech (and, for that matter, of conscience) also allows me to cast a critical eye over the cartoons in question; and definitively state that while I totally don't believe anyone should have died, been injured, or otherwise felt themselves vigilante-threatened for their publication ... at the same time I'd be *enormously* uncomfortable, given the magazine's output, stating something like "I Am Charlie Hebdo". Even for rhetorical purposes as part of the grand old tradition (although apparently not direct quote) best promulgated by another controversial French satirist of defending to the death even those utterances we find personally abhorrent. (Which, importantly, isn't necessarily the same thing as advocating for banning it - although I can certainly understand why some would want to - but rather stating in no uncertain terms that I'd definitely think an order of magnitude more than twice before consciously identifying myself *as* it for the purposes of creating an avatar for the virtues of untramelled freedom of speech. Read on and see what I mean)

The first image I came across when looking to get to grips with what, exactly, this magazine published ... was this.

The top line reads: "The Sex Slaves Of Boko Haram Are Angry". Which is fair enough - Stockholm Syndrome notwithstanding, I'm not sure what other emotion would be more appropriate for their situation. But then check out the words that have been put into the mouths of these victims of abduction, rape, and insurgent violence. "Don't touch our [welfare] benefits!" Then look at how the women in question are drawn, and the overall effect of the depiction.

From where I'm sitting, it looks like the guys at Charlie Hebdo have managed to combine together in a single image various tropes of Islamophobia, Negrophobia/Xenophobia, and one of my strong personal pet-hates, the tired right-wing canard of the "Welfare Queen", who exploits her fertility as a means to ensure a state-guaranteed income.

There's a quote from Molly Ivins that runs "Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only crude - it is vulgar."

Considering the relative position of the women being referred to on the receiving end of a massive power imbalance with their captors (and, for that matter, the subaltern position of immigrant and/or refugee women of colour in a famously homogeneous Western nation like France); I think it's safe to say that many reasonable observers would agree with me that that cover was, at best, vulgar - and more properly, "highly offensive" for any number of reasons. I have noted with interest which friends have gone from #BringBackOurGirls a few months ago to #JeSuisCharlie today.

Let's try another one.

Now I'm *pretty sure* even the most monolingual and unpolyglottaly gifted of us can work out what "Le Coran C'Est De La Merde" means ... but that's not even the chief point of issue I take with this image. The event being referred to is the killing of more than 50 Egyptian pro-democracy activists at a sit-in by Egyptian military personnel on the 8th of July 2013.

The same day this edition of Charlie Hebdo came out, Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the post-coup regime's use of violence to repress its own people. "Charlie", by contrast, decided to use the occasion as a chance to make a polemical point against politicized Islam at the expense of half a hundred dead Egyptians, and featuring some pretty triumphalist denigration of somebody else's scripture into the bargain. Apparently, they haven't heard that ideas are bulletproof...

It would, of course, be cruel and insensitive (or, in the world of Charlie Hebdo, "edgy" and "satirical") to point out the bitter irony inherent in that cover now. Cartoons, it would appear - as with Holy Writ - don't seem to do a particularly good job deflecting bullets. (And if you find that statement objectionable - congratulations. You're now beginning to see what's wrong with Charlie Hebdo. Did you have the same reaction to the magazine cover...?)

Now while I could go on at some length with further examples drawn from the annals of Charlie Hebdo's back-catalogue (for instance, this cover which attempts to take on the uniquely honoured position of the Catholic Church in French society ... by boldly informing us "The French Are As Dumb As The 'Negres'"; or this absolutely delightful image which manages to denigrate and horrendously stereotype Indians, Chernobyl survivors, non-nuclear -and especially blended - families, and the predominantly impoverished and/or immigrant inhabitants of the Seine-Saint-Denis administrative department, all in one go) ... but I think I've made my point.

When it comes to armed violence, neither journalists nor satirists (nor, heaven help us, bloggers for that matter) are "legitimate" targets. Freedom of speech is, inarguably, a fundamentally important cornerstone of the way we do things in the West here in the 21st century - and, within certain justified limits (as exemplified best by the old chestnut of causing a lethal panic by "falsely shouting 'FIRE!' in a crowded theater"; or laws against hate-speech or the incitement of racial hatred such as sections 61 and 63 of our very own Human Rights Act 1993 (section 62 covers hate-speech on the basis of sexuality)), that freedom is *absolutely* worth stepping up and defending.

But we can do both things - and, for that matter, express sympathy for the slain and those they've left behind - WITHOUT having to buy into the growing media narrative that Charlie Hebdo was just some sort of impishly irreverent and unproblematically equal-opportunity publication that specialized merely in "taking aim at the powerful".  It's not a black-and-white case of being uncritically "either [...] with us, or with the terrorists"; particularly as one of the cornerstone arguments for protecting freedom of speech in the first place is the vital utility of being able to engage in measured, reasoned, and critical discourse in pursuit of truth and social justice.

As I hope this piece has demonstrated, these guys saw absolutely zero problem with turning their mockery and denigration upon the power*less* with as much, if not more vitriol than they reserved for the powerful; and were quite happy to consciously invoke, play up, and therefore perpetuate damaging stereotypes and discriminatory tropes at the expense of the marginalized and the subaltern in so doing. Obviously, this does not justify their deaths nor exculpate their murderers; but it does make the growing lionization of Charlie Hebdo as some sort of temple of free speech and Enlightenment/Western values a slightly unsavory one.

Let us be clear. These guys were no Salman Rushdie in terms of literary or artistic merit; and I can but hope that this piece has helped to explain why I find it both uncomfortable and problematic that so many people that I *know* have strong left-wing, anti-discriminatory, and social-justice values are uncritically running around the internet at present declaring that they are Charlie Hebdo.

By all means, stand up and be counted among the advocates and defenders of freedom of speech. It is, after all, the very same NZBoRA-enshrined right that allows me to even *approach* this issue in public with the assumedly-controversial perspective that I have. (Although truth be told, I am awaiting with interest the likely exegesis in the comments section from some of those self-same free-speech advocates and people apparently called Charlie Hebdo as to why I never should have set finger-to-keyboard on this piece in the first place)

But have a thought and a care for that which you may unwittingly lend legitimacy to by uncritically adopting a hashtag like #JeSuisCharlie - that which you are stating that you *are*; and remember that it's perfectly possible to advocate in vociferous favour of freedom of speech and against the armed repression of viewpoints you may not necessarily agree with ... *without* leaving your disdain for some of the more reprehensible uses of that freedom of speech by the team at Charlie Hebdo at the door. (Which is what the wholesale adoption of the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag by large swathes of the population without any further examination on their part of the nature of the publication being defended arguably encourages)

After all; I'm sure I speak for many of the readers and contributors of this blog when I state that when it comes to defending freedom of speech, there's a whole *slew* of reasons we wouldn't likely embrace a hashtag like #IAmWhaleOil...

[My thanks to Hussein Mahmud for his assistance with this piece]



Saturday, January 3, 2015

The New Year's Honours List Is A Joke (In Parts)

One of the more interesting/infuriating things about living in a Westminster-tethered constitutional monarchy-cum-democracy is the annual spectacle of the New Year's Honours List; in which a compilation of civic luminaries, as chosen by the Prime Minister and Cabinet, are endowed with fancy titles through the power and good graces of our intercontinental sovereign, the Queen.

I'm not going to get into the ins and outs of whether titular honours that hearken back to the days of the movers and shakers of the realm doing their moving-and-shaking while on horseback with lances are really appropriate for a modern, antipodean, and most importantly, nominally *egalitarian* society such as ours - we've already had capacious national debate on that score, and at the end of the day, the distinctions between the new/old system we have under National, and the previous attempt at de-feudalization under Labour are mostly cosmetic.

But what I *will* say is that I'm genuinely surprised and incensed by some of the more ... curious choices and justifications that have appeared on this year's list. Two, in particular, stand out.

Theresa Gattung, and Tariana Turia.

We'll start with Gattung.

According to the Honours List, she's been made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for "services to business and philanthropy". This is rather curious in my view, as Gattung et co's actions while running Telecom between 1999 and 2007 inarguably *cost* Kiwi business millions of dollars in lost revenue and forgone economic potential.

One of our greatest comparative *disadvantages* when compared to just about all of our major trading partners and competitors, is the fact that we're a small collection of islands on the literal other side of the world and at the ends of the Earth relative to just about everyone who'd want to buy anything off us. The Information Revolution, and gradual linking up of everywhere via the internet represented the greatest hope for overcoming that difficulty since the invention and adoption of refrigerated shipping in the late 1800s. We have awesome creativity, ingenuity, and intellectual potential in this country - and the intercontinental interconnectivity represented by the internet would, in an ideal world, have meant that the tyranny of distance which ensures our best and brightest have to go (offshore) to the Mountain to get recognized and earn a buck would pale into insignificance.

Unfortunately, in 1990 some neoliberal economic genius decided that the best way to develop our economy was to parcel our formerly state-run telecommunications utility and associated line infrastructure off into the private sector; apparently heedless of the fact that i) in a country as small as Aotearoa, line infrastructure is something of a natural monopoly, and ii) that private enterprise given control of a natural monopoly tends to price-gouge, under-invest, and otherwise generally take advantage of a lack of competition and/or regulatory oversight in order to earn its daily caviar-dipped bread.

This is *exactly* what then ensued with Telecom - a situation that even those notoriously unreconstructed socialists in Treasury are prepared to (vaguely) acknowledge.

Thanks to Gattung's Midasian emphasis upon turning exploitative monopolistic corporate revenues into gold for her shareholders (rather than, say, transmuting copper into fiber-optics when it came to our national communications network), New Zealand consumers and businesses enjoyed internet connectivity that was, by 2006, slower and less reliable than literally every other country in the OECD apart from Mexico. The situation got so incredibly bad for business that in mid-2007 the Auckland Chamber of Commerce threatened to build its *own* local broadband network if Telecom refused to pull finger and actually deliver the goods.

Needless to say, when the company you preside over is so *astoundingly inept* at providing the business-essential service in question that the organization representing local business has to step in and suggest it's more than capable of doing a better job *itself* ... it's literally "Disservice" rather than "Service" to business that best describes what you're doing.

About the only positive thing I can say about Gattung's tenure running Telecom, is that by creating and exacerbating a situation wherein the then-Labour government had to step in and "unbundle" Telecom from its lucrative line-infrastructure monopoly for the good of the Nation, Gattung inadvertently triggered the end of a monopolistic setup that had previously allowed her company to charge well over *double* what a fair market rate would be for other telecommunications businesses to connect to and use its shoddy and outmoded line infrastructure.

This is without even getting into the AAPT fiasco (where Gattung's leadership managed to turn a $2.2 billion dollar investment in cracking the Australian market into a rout worth $270 million), the Roger Award for Worst Transnational Company Operating In New Zealand which her company "won" in 2004, or the memorable 2006 incident in which she proudly declared that the "marketing tool[s]" of "confusion" and "not being straight up" with customers were the secret to Telecom's ability to "keep calling prices up and get those [...] high margin[s] for a lot longer than would have been the case [otherwise]". That last one, obviously, came at the *direct* expense of Kiwi businesses and consumers; and demonstrably proves that when it comes to Hanlon's Razor, Gattung's corporate conduct was the result of both incompetence *and* malice.

In sum then, I very strongly feel that awarding Gattung a CNZM for "services to business" is rather akin to Obama being handed a Nobel Peace Prize, and for much the same reason.

Moving from private sector to public, we have Tariana Turia, who's picked up a gong for "Services to Parliament". I'm racking my brains trying to divine what manner of august contribution she can have made to deserve *that* accolade; and beyond "spends two Parliamentary terms supporting the same National government that then does the awarding", I got nothing.

Some additional clarification for the reasoning is, however, provided by Turia herself; who notes that she's a "firm believer in the private or NGO sector carrying out a lot of the functions of the state" as a concrete expression of Rangatiratanga; so perhaps National decided she deserved to be called a four letter word in compensation for apparently trying to be the most prominent female Maori MP in favour of the anti-state Neoliberal agenda since Donna Awatere Huata.

Whatever you think of them, titular honours ought to be used for recognizing and - as the name implies - honouring the contributions of New Zealanders who have done things that truly improve our Nation and the lives of our people. They should be particularly applied to those who frequently operate outside the public eye and who do their duty bereft of the easy rewards and recognition of a pre-existing public profile.

They should *not* be used to back-slap and nod-wink-golden-handshake political cronies whose greatest identifiable contribution in the category "Services to Parliament" appears to be pliantly propping up the government doing the awarding ... nor should they be used to curry favour with, or otherwise keep sweet, that same government's pals in the upper echelons and tax-brackets of the business community.

In sum: when it comes to the Honours, I don't care *what* you call them (although as applies the two focal points of this piece, a thesaurus opened to the entry for "perfidious" supplies any number of suggestions); but I *do* care *who* gets called what - and, just as importantly, why.

Otherwise, we're left with a situation wherein the "Honour" rings about as hollow to many of us down here in the cheap-seats as the "Honourable" in "Rt. Hon. John Key".

[My thanks to Nick Keesing for his assistance with this piece]

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

If this were my son...

Toward the close of New Year's Eve Eve, this post from TV3's excellent man about various towns, David Farrier, happened to percolate across my newsfeed.

It's a photo of a temporary memorial called Arlington West that's erected every Sunday on California's Santa Monica beach by a group called Veterans For Peace. It's dedicated to US servicemen killed during the course of the Iraq War, with each of the thousands of crosses in the photo representing one of the fallen. (As an aside, the plaque next to it points out that while this monument to the American war-dead takes up an area some 141 feet wide by 310 feet long, if done at the same scale for the Iraqi dead ... it'd be some 141 feet wide by 12.8 *miles* in length)

However, it's not just *any* photo of a war memorial and contemplative space ... it's also one of Max Key's holiday snaps.

As the lad himself puts it, "Fun".

Now, when this came up for debate amidst my friendcircle, the point was made that as a general rule, the spawn of politicians we don't like shouldn't ordinarily be singled out for especial targeting merely by virtue of their parentage. We don't usually get to choose those who contribute our patronymics and chromosomes, as you may have noticed.

The same gentleman then followed this up by asking the rhetorical question "If this was your kid, would your reaction be different?"

And I have to say (leaving aside, for a moment, the fact that I've never really considered blogging about my unborn presumptive children/hypothetical-next-generation-of-naescent-Rolinsonian-political-supersoldiers before) ... yes, yes it would be a bit different. I'd be giving him a clip round the ear - something that, I can't help but note, you aren't *usually* allowed to legally do to somebody else's kids. (Particularly given my rather amusing previous run-in with Key's diplomatic protection squaddies...)

In any case, while 19 is getting a little old to run the excuse of youthful exuberance and indiscretion; the reason why Max Key editorializing a memorial to Western troops who've died in Iraq as "fun" is arguably comment-worthy, is the fact that at the same time Max is shooting photos amidst the sand ... his father has our own military gearing up for a deployment to a new shooting war *also* in Iraq.

I'm not always a believer that you can judge too terribly much about a given father based around his son's arguable misconduct (because otherwise there'd be some seriously, seriously unfortunate conclusions to be drawn about The Rev. Rolinson based the continual stream of *ahem* "eccentricity" I indulge in) ... but if Max Key is *this* blase about America's war-dead from Iraq, we can only wonder whether this has anything to do with John Key's potentially somewhat cavalier attitude to putting our men and women in harm's way in the same foreign country.

Let's hope Key the Elder possesses a little more perspicacity than his son does about the gravity of what it means to die in a far-off land in service to your (or, in this case, someone else's) nation.

[My thanks to Andrew Paul Wood for his assistance with this piece]