Month: April 2014

More mass executions ordered in Egypt

I’ve previously posted on the case of the 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt who were sentenced to death for the murder of a policeman during violent protests. The Guardian reports that the judge has upheld the death sentences of 37 of those 529 Brotherhood members; the rest now face 25 year prison sentences in place of the death sentence.

However, The Guardian further reports that that same judge, Saeed Youssef, has also sentenced a further 683 men to death on charges of killing a policeman in Minya in August 2013. The way this second “trial” has been carried out is eerily similar to the first:

Lawyers and rights campaigners said the sentences in the two mass trials resulted from rushed proceedings that infringed basic local and international law.

Mohamed Elmessiry, an Amnesty International researcher who attended the hearings, said: “In each trial, the defence were not able to present their case, the witnesses were not heard, and many of the accused were not brought to the courtroom. This lacks any basic guarantees of a fair trial – not only under international law, but also Egyptian national law.

“The trials themselves are a death sentence to any remaining credibility and independence of Egypt’s criminal justice system.”

The Court documents which form the basis of the Police case numbered over 6,000 pages, and it has been argued that the judge could not possibly have had time to even read the evidence, let alone find the specific evidence related to each of the 683 defendants.

Worse, it’s alleged that some of the defendants were not even mentioned in the documents. For instance a defence lawyer, Ahmed Eid, who acted for some of the 529 defendants in the original trial, has been sentenced to death. His family allege that there is no mention of him in the 6,000 pages of evidence, that he was arrested after the case was referred to the Court, and that the arrest occurred because he had failed to pay a bribe to police.

Of course, this is the work of a single judge (although the original 37 death sentences have already been upheld by Egypt’s Grand Mufti, to whom all death penalty cases must be referred), and all of the sentences are now subject to appeal. However, if those appeals fail it will show that there is no longer a rule of law in Egypt. The international community should be readying itself to remove international aid funds from Egypt.


Labour’s new monetary policy tool

Labour has announced its new monetary policy tool – a variable savings rate (VSR) which would allow the Reserve Bank to vary Kiwisaver savings rates. It would be an alternative to raising the OCR to raise interest rates.

It’s a fascinating idea, although I’d need to see some fairly detailed modelling to have any idea whether it would actually work.

The policy is aimed at a number of different targets:

  • There’s the obvious target – reducing interest rates rises. Essentially, the Reserve Bank would use the VSR to take money out of circulation, rather than higher interest rates.
  • There’s exchange rates. Labour argues that our dollar is over-valued, and most analysts seem to agree. Lower interest rates make our dollar less attractive, helping exporters.
  • There’s New Zealand’s woeful savings rates. Labour would be making Kiwisaver compulsory, and the higher the VSR, the higher our level of national savings. According to David Parker, Labour’s finance spokesperson, Labour wants to see the Kiwisaver contribution rate rise from its current rate of 6% to around 9%. That’s a significant increase in national savings…
  • There’s our ever-ongoing annual current account deficit. A lower dollar makes imports more expensive, while making exporting easier. Over time, our current account deficit should diminish.

The policy seems likely to be sold on two fronts. Firstly, it’s a blatant pitch to those with a mortgage – “We’ll keep your interest rates low!” Secondly, judging by David Parker’s language on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon show, there’ll be a nationalistic attack on overseas banks – “Keep your money in Kiwisaver, rather than giving it away in profit to overseas banks!”

(The second sales pitch seems somewhat dishonest to me. When mortgage rates go up following an OCR increase, term deposit rates increase as well – when New Zealanders with a mortgage pay more, New Zealanders with savings in the bank earn more. Banks have a gap between what they borrow at and what they lend at – that’s where they make their profit (not including the various accounts they charge). Bank profitability isn’t hugely impacted by whether the OCR sits at 3% or 3.25%.)

There are a number of fishhooks and double-edged swords in the policy though. The major fishhook is also a major selling point (to me) of the policy – those with mortgages are a minority in New Zealand; those who earn a wage or salary and would therefore be subject to compulsory Kiwisaver and the VSR are a majority. Any movement in the VSR will therefore directly impact a far wider pool of consumers than would a movement in the OCR. That’s a problem for those with little discretionary income who don’t have a mortgage, but it also makes the tool rather more effective. The Reserve Bank has always had to struggle with the fact that a majority of mortgage funds are often fixed, meaning that increases in the OCR can take longer periods of time to impact on many mortgage holders.

For those with a mortgage and a wage or salary, the benefit of interest rates not rising is offset in the short- to medium-term by increased Kiwisaver payments. Sure, they’ll get those funds back on retirement, but it’s not money that is available for them to reduce their mortgage or otherwise tap into prior to retirement.

Then there’s the issue of the value of the NZ dollar. It’s been high for some time now and consumers appear to have gotten quite used to cheap electronics and the like. Drive the dollar lower and all of those manufactured goods become more expensive, which isn’t crash hot news for consumers, especially not those who have just watched a higher portion of their wage disappear into their Kiwisaver account. Drive the dollar lower and watch the price of imported fuel increase, with all of the flow on effects that entails. There are pros and cons to whatever level the dollar is at. How does the Reserve Bank decide what the “correct” value should be?

Obviously it’s a policy that is going need some further fleshing out. For instance, Labour doesn’t yet know whether the Reserve Bank would have the power to adjust the VSR itself or whether it would have to provide advice to the government of the day on whether it wanted the VSR raised or lowered (presumably, if the government failed to follow that advice, the Reserve Bank would then act using the OCR). However, it’s certainly a policy worthy of broader discussion.

Regardless, the attack lines from the Right are already out. Just look at David Farrar’s headline at Kiwiblog – “Labour proposes a cut in everyone’s after tax income“…

Legal high knee-jerking: Deconstructing the angst

Well, after three weeks of almost-daily pressure from Campbell Live, the government has finally folded and announced the imminent removal of legal highs from the shelves. All interim approvals will be cancelled.

However, the government (and indeed the opposition, since every MP but John Banks voted for the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013) got almost exactly what it had wanted from the new legislation – the number of products on shelves was cut dramatically; the number of outlets stocking legal highs dropped by 95%; and according to the Ministry of Health anecdotal reports demonstrate “the number of severe presentations to emergency departments [due to problems with psychoactive substances] has reduced since the Act came in” (see Tim Watkins’ Pundit post). As far as I can see, the law was and is working precisely as Parliament intended.

So why has this knee-jerk policy announcement happened? Let’s look at some of the culprits.

1. The ever-pervasive laws of supply and demand: As Parliament intended, the number of shops stocking legal highs was slashed. The demand for the product was not. Therefore, the buyers of legal highs, once spread thinly across a far greater number of suppliers, now congregate at a select few supply locations. What was once a largely unseen trade has now become extremely visible, with queues forming down streets in a number of locations. The public has suddenly gone from blissful ignorance to a state of squalid knowledge.

2. Local councils: As Peter Dunne has hammered endlessly in almost every interview for past three weeks, Parliament gave local councils exactly what they had asked for, namely, the ability to pass local plans regulating where legal highs could be sold (just as occurs with the sale of alcohol). Only Hamilton and Hastings councils passed such plans. The remainder, such as the southern mayors, simply whinged about the government passing the problem on to them.

(Admittedly, having the councils relegate the sale of legal highs to just one or two locations would only intensify the public perception problem at those few locations. And a de facto ban, which is essentially what Hamilton and Hastings had put in place, simply results in a black market, creating its own brand of problems.)

3. The government: The approval regime for testing proposed products and ensuring they are low risk was not due to be announced until 2015. How long does it take to set up a testing framework and clarify what is low risk? While in the meantime, the more the moral panic grows…

4. Parliament and partisan politics: Despite voting for the Act just last year, the moral panic has been such that Labour have been unable to resist putting the boot into the government, secretly preparing a bill to overturn the interim approvals. Unfortunately for Labour, their plans were leaked and Peter Dunne announced the government’s plan to overturn the interim approvals one day ahead of Labour. Peter Dunne says that Cabinet gave the green light to the government’s bill two weeks ago, but that he was planning to hold off on making any public announcements “to prevent panic-buying and stockpiling”.

Despite Dunne admitting that his early announcement was political, he sanctimoniously stated:

“The consequence is going to be there will be a period now of binge-buying over the next couple of weeks and they [Labour] have to bear the responsibility for that.”

No, Mr Dunne – you made the call to announce your bill weeks early, for your political purposes. The responsibility is yours.

If Dunne really cared about the issues of binge-buying and stockpiling, he would have picked up the phone to the Labour party weeks ago and come to a bipartisan accord. After all, did he really think that Labour wouldn’t have been preparing some anti-government lines of attack on the issue, with an election fast approaching? Instead, here’s Dunne’s response on Twitter to Labour’s Iain Lees-Galloway, who had been criticising Dunne for not picking up the phone to Labour:

“and do you really think the government would have given you a victory on this?”

If National, Labour and Dunne had worked together on this issue, a number of harms could have been ameliorated. A pity Dunne couldn’t resist the allure of egotism and grandstanding, as opposed to principle.

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National targets Wigram : Why they’re unlikely to win it

National has today declared that the Wigram seat is “marginal” and “winnable”. I’d have to disagree with that analysis.

On first glance, it looks as if National may be in with a chance. The sitting Labour MP, Megan Woods – who took the seat in 2011 following the retirement of Jim Anderton – holds a 1,500 vote majority. With just a 4.81% buffer between Ms Woods and the 2011 National candidate, Sam Collins, that makes the seat the fifth most marginal in the country (not accounting for the new electoral boundary changes, which seem to have slightly benefited National in Wigram). Further, National was streets ahead in the party vote, gaining 44.55% compared to Labour’s 30.61%.

So here’s why National will struggle to take Wigram:

  • In 2011, Megan Woods was a new Labour candidate in a seat that had been held for the longest time by Mr Anderton. National’s Canterbury-Westland chair, Roger Bridge, may describe Ms Woods as a low-profile MP, but she will still go into this year’s election with the benefit of incumbency.
  • National don’t yet have a candidate. Nominations have just opened, with a candidate likely to be announced in mid-May. That gives the successful candidate just four months to begin working their way through the electorate, raising their profile. That’s not long. Especially not against a sitting MP.
  • In 2011, National benefitted from a sharp swing against Labour. Labour’s nation-wide party vote plummeted to just over 27%. Unless something catastrophic occurs, Labour won’t be ending up with an election result that’s worse than that. Likewise, National’s polling is averaging at just below their 2011 result – they’ll be struggling to get higher come election day, and may well sink lower throughout the election campaign. It’s highly unlikely that National’s Wigram candidate will be benefitting from an anti-Labour, pro-National swing.

My pick? Megan Woods’ majority will increase. Maybe not by much, but it will still increase. Wigram won’t be changing hands this election.


Labour’s strange choice of a Tukituki candidate

Labour’s candidate for the Tukituki electorate, Anna Lorck, is making headlines for all the wrong reasons – namely her tweet from 2011, when she wrote:

 “Can’t wait till Cunliff [sic] turns up in HB … we haven’t forgotten he sacked our DHB … he’s no leader, he’s a bully.”

The context is of course David Cunliffe’s 2008 sacking of the board of the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board.

If only that were the only problematic tweet. However, David Farrar highlights a few more from 2011:

August 31, 2011 – “Labour looked like they hired a rent-a-crowd to protest outside PM public meeting in Napier tonight. #provemewrong”

September 1, 2011 – “#5 child just told me that John Key is her man! Big talk for a 2yrs. Must have heard her mother and friends talking politics.”

Now everyone is entitled to change their viewpoint. I’ve got no problem with that. I do have a problem though with Labour’s selection process. When they sat Ms Lorck down for an interview and asked what skeletons she might have in her closet, she presumably told them about the tweets – after all, both the Labour hierarchy and National’s Tukituki MP, Craig Foss, seemed to be well aware of the tweets before they hit the local Hawke’s Bay rag. So did Labour not think that it might be a bad idea to select a candidate who had very publicly and aggressively gone for the Labour leader’s jugular in 2011, and whose tweets show that less than three years ago was a National sympathiser? Did Labour not think that some embarrassing headlines may occur? Or were the other applicants for the Tukituki candidacy even less credible?

Craig Foss will be laughing all the way to election day.

The killing and the dying, it was all done in vain

To me, there’s no glory in war. In a World War One context, “Lest we forget” should be about the foolish futility of sending young men and women off to die to defend arbitrary national borders on the other side of the world, while in recent years, “Lest we forget” should symbolise the rank stupidity of blindly trusting in the concept of military intelligence.

Every Anzac Day, I play the Irish Rovers’ version of No Man’s Land (Willie McBride), with the beautiful final verse:

And I can’t help but wonder now, Willie McBride
Do them that lie here, do they know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
For the suffering and the sorrow and the glory and the shame
And the killing and the dying, it was all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it’s all happened again
And again and again and again and again.

I salute the fallen, who have had their lives taken from them. But all of the talk of our so-called glorious Anzac history simply leaves me cold.

Shane Jones’ departure shows just why Labour should be glad he’s going

There was an interesting article by Claire Trevett in the NZ Herald this morning, in which Shane Jones’ partner, Dot Pumipi, was interviewed about Mr Jones’ departure:

Shane Jones’ partner, Dot Pumipi, says the MP’s greatest fear in making the decision to resign was that his phone would stop ringing and he would get withdrawal symptoms from the sudden lack of attention.

It’s an interview that sums up the gigantic narcissism of a politician like Shane Jones. Just as we probably all expected, it’s now been confirmed that it’s all been about Jonesy and the attention he could get.

He’s confirmed it too as he walks out the Labour party door, giving interviews to all and sundry where he reprises his “geldings” attack on the Labour caucus, implies that the party’s moved too far to the left, continues his attack on the Green party, and says he could never work under a Greens’ minister. It’s good headline grabbing stuff, but it’s a slap to the face of Jones’ soon-to-erstwhile colleagues. David Cunliffe must be spitting tacks at the method of Jones’ departure, but he and the remaining Labour caucus will be breathing a sigh of relief that Jones is gone.

At the end of the month, Shane Jones will drift off into the Pacific, into a well-paid political oblivion, and the negative headlines that followed him wherever he went will end. Clayton Cosgrove will take over Labour’s hatchet job on Countdown (and Cosgrove makes a good attack dog, albeit one not quite so flamboyant as Jones), and Kelvin Davis will step up to the plate as an example of dignified, modern Maori leadership. And as the election campaign begins, the only people missing Jones will be the media.

What will Labour do in Te Tai Tokerau?

Labour’s candidate in the seat of Te Tai Tokerau is Kelvin Davis. He was briefly a list MP between 2008 and 2011, before disappearing in Labour’s 2011 election wipeout thanks to his low list placing. Now, of course, with Shane Jones exiting stage right, Mr Davis will take up the soon-to-be-vacant list position.

Mr Davis has undoubtedly learned that one cannot trust the vagaries of a list position if one wants to be certain of a future in national politics. He will want to win Te Tai Tokerau. And he’s been making a good fist of it, cutting Hone Harawira’s majority from over 6,000 in 2008 to just 1,165 in 2011. It would require a swing to Labour of just over 6%, but that’s entirely possible if either Harawira’s personal vote takes a hit due to his flirtations with Kim Dotcom or if the Maori party gives the nod to its voters to support Davis (the Maori party candidate in 2011, Waihoroi Shortland got 3,114 votes).

The question is, will Labour want him to win?

The problem for Labour is whether the Left bloc can get hold of enough votes to consign National to the opposition benches. Last election, the Mana party received 1.08% of the vote. It’s currently sitting on just 0.5% in this blog’s Poll of Polls, but the party will have taken heart from the last Roy Morgan and TV3 Reid Research polls, which had Mana at 1.0% and 1.1% respectively. If the “Mana Dotcom” alliance takes place and the Internet Party can drag in another 1% (not impossible, given that the last Roy Morgan poll had the Internet Party on 1%), then Labour have a conundrum. Do they try and take back Te Tai Tokerau, thereby tipping Harawira and the Mana party out of parliament, and risk falling short of a governing majority due to the increase in the wasted vote?

Mr Davis’ campaign manager, Kaye Taylor, certainly hasn’t been going easy on Hone Harawira, going by this reporting in the NZ Herald:

But Davis’ campaign manager Kaye Taylor says they won’t be rolling over to let Harawira into Parliament, more Mana Party MPs on his coat-tails, and the Internet Party candidates trailing behind them. “Look at Hone’s history,” she exclaims. “He’s had the visit to the great leader Nelson Mandela’s funeral and walked with Aborigines in Australia. But that’s not who votes him in. In past elections we played the nice opposition and haven’t said anything about his past record. Now enough is enough. We need someone who can do the hard yards.”

If such attacks continue, we’ll know that Labour see Harawira (and either his Mana Party or a Mana / Internet Party alliance) as too much of a potential liability. If Mr Davis and Ms Taylor start playing nice, we’ll know that Labour is worried that they’ll need Harawira and whatever other misfits he’s able to drag in to Parliament with him. And if Davis gets given the order to go easy, Labour had better have made sure that he’s been given a good list position…

What does Shane Jones’ departure mean for Labour?

So, Shane Jones is leaving the building, wooed away by an offer from Murray McCully to become a roving economic ambassador throughout the Pacific.

The political reaction has been rather diverse. Over at the Daily Blog and the Standard, various hardened left wing activists trumpeted his departure as a victory – a lancing of a right wing boil from Labour’s soft left wing skin – while various political commentators have decried his leaving as a huge blow to Labour’s ability to attract votes from National.

Personally, I see it as a short term blow, in terms of voter perception of the manner of his departure, but nothing more.

The problem for Labour is the timing and the miscommunication. Having a former aspirant to the Labour leadership, and a front bench MP who has been firing on all cylinders recently, suddenly duck and run just five months out from the election looks terrible. It leaves the impression that Mr Jones does not believe that Labour can win. Plus, once the news broke, Labour simply looked disorganised. No one could be found for comment, and those that did comment didn’t seem to know anything. It was a case of terrible political management.

I can’t speak to Mr Jones’ actual motivations for leaving, but I would have thought that he is smart enough to know that it will only take a small swing to the left, and it’s game on for Labour and the Greens. To me, I think he’s simply become disillusioned with what he can personally achieve. He’s been muzzled, and the thought of wearing that muzzle for three more years leaves him cold. Certainly, his comment on TVNZs Breakfast show this morning, as reported in the NZ Herald, would indicate that it’s disillusionment, rather than defeatism:

There were frustrations during his career in being reigned in over some comments he had made, Mr Jones said.

“The political collar has chafed this dog’s neck and now I’ve slipped the collar.”

That comment sums up why I don’t see Mr Jones’ departure as being anything more than a short-term voter perception problem for Labour. Mr Jones may have a certain level of support among swing voters, but it’s outweighed by his slipshod approach to politics. He’s undisciplined, turns off women voters in droves with his casual misogyny, and simply cannot stay on message (as evidenced by his continued attacks on the Greens, presumably against the instructions of those on high). He creates just as many negative headlines as he does positive headlines, and would just as likely prove a liability in the upcoming election campaign as he would a positive. Mr Cunliffe would be continually on edge, every time Jones popped his head up to create a soundbite.

Certainly, Shane Jones has been Labour’s most effective mouthpiece regarding the importance of job creation. Yet the positive headlines about jobs would generally be balanced by a negative headline about whether Jones’ statements exposed further division within the Labour party.

On balance, once Jones goes and the media furore dies down, I don’t see there being a medium- or long-term downside for Labour. Perhaps Danyl McLauchlan at the Dim-Post sums it up best:

I guess this is ‘bad for Labour’. It makes them look weak and disorganised, and the gallery will run around wailing that Labour have just lost their brightest star. (I think they’ve lost an undisciplined, waffling misogynist who probably cost them more votes than he ever won.)

ACT’s ‘three strikes for burglary’ policy – when is a burglary not a burglary?

So, as part of the post-Easter comedown, ACT have re-announced their ‘Three Strikes for Burglary’ policy. I’ve previously blogged on my issue with this policy, so here’s a lazy re-post of my reason why I oppose the policy in its current form.

Occasionally Erudite Publications

Here in Gisborne, where I reside, burglary is endemic. The East Coast has, so I am told (by the Judiciary, no less), the highest rate of burglary in New Zealand, on an even par with Manukau. The Judiciary has declared war on burglary here, which is fair enough (although it certainly makes it rather more difficult to keep my clients out of prison on second or subsequent burglary convictions).

ACT’s policy of having three strikes for burglary (with a minimum sentence of three years’ imprisonment for a third strike) is therefore undoubtedly attractive to the good, law abiding citizens of Gisborne. Not so attractive, perhaps, for the less law abiding ones…

My issue is that sometimes a burglary is not a burglary.

The definition of “burglary” in s 231 of the Crimes Act is astonishingly wide:

(1) Every one commits burglary and is liable to imprisonment for a term not…

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