29 August 2013

ACC privatization 'off the agenda'

Amidst all of the fuss about the GSCB Bill and the Labour leadership, one important policy issue that may have escaped people's notice was covered by a Q&A interview (on 18 August). ACC's chief executive stated that the Ministers of ACC and of Finance have advised him that 'privatization' of ACC is 'off the agenda.' (See about 6:30 into this interview.)
This apparently means that National's 2011 election manifesto pledge to introduce competitive private-sector provision into (at least) the work-injury insurance portion of ACC has been abandoned.
This should be welcome news, as competitive provision would have resulted in higher levies. The premiums, and hence the investment funds, would have accrued to Australian insurance companies, rather than being kept on-shore.
Business-sector support for privatization was said to have waned anyway.
Those of us familiar with ACC policy and law will breathe a sigh of relief.

23 August 2013

Vacancy: Leader of the Opposition

‘A decent bloke, but….’ That kind of damning-with-faint-praise will sum up David Shearer’s leadership following his recent resignation. He’s in good company though, along with Bill Rowling and Phil Goff. These are leaders who had many fine qualities, but didn’t have the impact that was needed to see off a stronger opponent.
Along with opinion polls and TV appearances, leadership really does matter. It’s all very well to have popular policies, or at least to have fewer unpopular ones than the others. But a political party only thrives with a leader who can give voice to those policies in a manner that enough of the voters want to hear. And that voice must have impact on TV, as well as in the House.
The last straw for Labour MPs must have been Tuesday's inexplicable question from Shearer to Key about contact between the parties over the GCSB law. Key was incredulous that the question was put. He replied that there had been a meeting, and that Shearer had asked him to keep it confidential. And then there was the dead-fish stunt.... Shearer may as well have offered the House a noose to hang him with.
What Labour has lacked for some time is a stand-out leader of the likes of Savage, Kirk, Lange or Clark. And political leaders in a democracy are not just judged on individual merits. They are judged by comparison with their closest competitors. Even Shearer’s potential coalition ally, Russel Norman of the Greens, was making him look bad, without trying to.
John Key is at that stage in his prime-ministerial career where, even though still going strong, his persona is becoming divisive and he is forced to draw down political capital to get things done. The state asset sales, the Sky City deal and the GCSB Act are obvious examples. But he is far from being a spent force for the next election. And there are only a few cracks showing (in public) in the National Party’s support for him. He is perfectly capable of demolishing another Labour contender before the next election.  John Key is vulnerable, though. The Labour party might well ask itself which (if any) of the likely competitors for the leadership can stand up to Key and exploit those weaknesses. It will take more than a 'decent' liberal type to do that.

18 August 2013

Of fishermen and spies

It is illuminating to watch President Obama switch tack as he deals with political head-winds after the revelations from Ed Snowden. At least he admits that there is a problem.
What we now know is that the capability exists to drag-net all communications. This does not mean that everyone is being monitored; it just means that anyone can be monitored, any time. US law – and, as of this week, NZ law – permit the gathering of whole haystacks of data by the intelligence community so that the needle that may (or may not) be hidden therein can be located.
Once such capabilities exist, they can't be undone; and, if it can be done, it will be done, if not by us and our allies, then by our enemies (whoever they may be). The question now is how legally to frame and constrain such capabilities – even though their operational details are to be kept secret. An agency that has grown out of a military background, focussed on foreign signals intelligence, being used now also for domestic policing, with data-capture capacity never dreamed of in the past, is not an ideal agency when it comes to striking a balance between security and liberty/privacy. This is especially concerning given that the GCSB does not have the operational independence from the Executive that the Police have. And the Bill seems to be silent on what scope of unlawful activities its newly legalised capabilities are intended for. Could the GCSB be used, for instance, to assist the Police in the detection of offences against the Fisheries Act? (As I understand it, a sworn police officer also has the powers of a fisheries officer.)
Our Prime Minister has shown a lack of concern about the politics of this business, reasoning that those most worked up about the GCSB Bill are not those who would vote National anyway, and that those who do vote National profess a lack of concern.
Mr Key argues that what really matters to New Zealanders is the Snapper 1 fishery. In that case, there are probably unsustainable and allegedly illegal fishing activities occurring among both the recreational and commercial fishers, but there is insufficient surveillance of their activities to detect them and to fully estimate total catch-levels. In the case of recreational fishing, there is not even sufficient data on the actual tonnage landed annually. The answer, then, is greater surveillance, ironically. Perhaps when the calls, text-messages and locations of recreational fishermen start to be collected and analysed, then the complacency of those who are presently 'relaxed' about the GCSB might end.

14 August 2013

ACC screws up again, but the PM doesn't care

ACC is in trouble again after another privacy breach, this time involving the theft of a hand-written notebook from a case manager's home, containing personal information, including bank account and contact details, of at least 35 claimants.
ACC says it has a clear policy that 'Employees are not allowed to take client information home ... without prior approval from a senior manager, which would normally only be given on assurance of security of the information, usually by way of encrypted data and secure remote electronic access.' So, based on that, it appears that the handwritten notes should not have been taken to the case manager's home at all.
But, as if to confuse concerned members of the public, the Prime Minister was quoted on Radio NZ playing the whole thing down on the grounds that it was probably a 'diligent person that's taken some work home' - just like even he does sometimes. And, hey, a burglary can happen to anyone when least expected. Let's hope he doesn't lose any GCSB briefings.
It's disappointing that the country's leader attributes a serious breach of privacy to an employee being 'diligent', rather than to a failure to respect clients' rights and privacy policies.
What's also troubling is that ACC took 10 days to approach affected and potentially affected clients. That does not pass the sniff test. There's now a suspicion that the Corporation was hoping they could get the notebook back and keep the breach quiet without telling the affected clients.
People affected by this kind of privacy breach should be informed as soon as practicable, however. And the PM should stick up for higher standards of conduct in the state services, and not excuse poor performance.

10 August 2013

Pity the poor public servant

There are presently 29 public service departments in New Zealand. Not bad for 4.4 million people, although the number has been declining in recent years, due to amalgamations into 'super-ministries' such as MPI (primary industries) and MBIE (business, innovation and employment).
One wonders how, under such an anti-PC government, the tiny Ministries of Women's Affairs and Pacific Island Affairs have been left alone.
The trend, at the height of the neo-liberal era, however, had been to decentralize services, and to break up the old monolithic, multi-purpose bureaucracies into smaller, single-purpose agencies. That way, things would be 'more efficient and effective,' we were told.
It soon became obvious to those at the centre of government, however, that the new arrangements created problems of co-ordination and duplication. Each agency was pursuing its own goals, sometimes without considering the consequences for other public services; and each agency had to have its own teams for human resources, accounting, communications, etc as in-house services.
So, the present government has advanced a trend that began under Clark: to re-amalgamate and to look for ways in which agencies can share 'back-office' services, IT infrastructure, etc. That way, things will be 'more efficient and effective,' we are told. What's more, we will get 'better public services' and, after a while, budget surpluses too. What more could we ask?
Barely had the super-ministry MBIE been formed, however, than the Pike River disaster occurred and there was a Royal Commission of Inquiry, one of whose very sensible recommendations was to split the Health and Safety enforcement service off from MBIE and to create a stand-alone, single-purpose agency. The government agreed, and the new WorkSafe NZ is expected to be up and running in December. It will be the workplace health and safety regulator, and a stand-alone Crown Agent. About 300 MBIE staff will be shifted into the new organization.
That's progress – although it's also 'back to the future' – and no doubt the transition will cause a lot of disruption and time-wasting for the staff concerned, who only recently were folded into the MBIE that they are soon to be parted from.
Now that the Fonterra contamination scandal is being scrutinized, one already hears people say that we need the formerly stand-alone NZFSA (food safety authority) to be rescued from the depths of mega-ministry MPI. But, hang on, the poor people are still getting their feet under their desks after the last restructuring when services were amalgamated...

09 August 2013

China blows an ideological dog-whistle

Galling though it may be for many Kiwis to be lectured from the mouthpiece of a one-party state about our being "hostage to a blinkered devotion to laissez-faire market ideology," the rebuke is a deserved one. I recommend that you read the full China Daily editorial. One passage that has not been widely quoted in the NZ media is this: "the New Zealand government, which makes a great show of disdaining regulation at home, seems quite happy to let others regulate for it abroad." Think, for example, about vehicle emissions and safety. Had it been left up to she'll-be-right Kiwis, local vehicle emissions and safety standards would not be anywhere near those that we now enjoy, thanks largely to vehicles imported from Asian countries, mainly Japan. Our laissez-faire, anti-state attitude insists that it's economically inefficient to impose regulatory standards onto industries. The economy comes first. But that attitude can, as we know all too well in the building industry, lead to a false economy, as people are left to face the costs and consequences of poor quality-controls. Pike River hardly needs a mention.
It would be petulant and foolish of us to ignore China Daily's rebuke and not to do some examination of how well we do things at home.
New Zealand has hitched a ride with the economy (China) that will soon be the world's largest, one which operates politically and culturally on different values from ours, but whose consumers nevertheless will increasingly demand top-quality produce, just like middle-classes elsewhere in the world. New Zealand is relying on its trading relationship with China to help pull us out of the recent recession and to bring in foreign capital.
We may ask whether the 2008 Crash and the rise of China signify the beginning of the end of that American version of neo-liberalism that New Zealand so eagerly embraced in the recent past, and the beginning of a new global consensus around political economy that will be more multi-lateral and multi-cultural and more heavily influenced by countries like China and Russia. Will neo-liberalism give way to something like an authoritarian capitalism? And are we prepared for the change?
When it comes to building a reputation for excellence in all that we do (including keeping our environment clean), you'd have to say that we just aren't cutting it. And so we need political leadership that stops covering things up with "I'm relaxed/comfortable with that" (i.e., with low expectations), and instead insists that our industries can do better and that we will lift our game.

04 August 2013

How much should we trust Prime Ministers?

Two of the biggest recent controversies concerning intercepted communications – the Key–Banks 'cuppa tea' conversation, and the release of phone and email records to the Henry inquiry – arose from incidents that had little potential to cause any really serious harm.
If you had a chance to read the tea-pot conversation transcript, you'd know there was little of great interest in it, other than a couple of off-colour remarks that could well have been covered with an apology. That recorded conversation would not have passed the legal test of a 'private communication' as it was held in a very public situation, and there was no evidence found of intent to intercept it, so there was probably no crime done. (The matter was never tested in court, so I guess we'll never know for sure.)
Similarly, despite all the fuss, Peter Dunne's alleged release of the Kitteridge report to a journalist was not really a big deal. It was not classified, and was due for public release anyway. What may have really upset the PM was that the matter then dominated headlines while he was away in China and wanting media attention to focus on what he was doing there.
So, even though both events could easily have been put to rest quite quickly, the government of the day decided instead to turn them into witch-hunts. In the tea-pot tape incident, we saw police exercising search warrants on media organisations in the days leading up to an election. We have read also that the search into the accused cameraman's text messages could also have breached the confidentiality between lawyer and client. Not a good look for a country that prides itself on respect for civil and political rights.
In the case of the Henry inquiry into the release of the Kitteridge report, we have witnessed the PM's staff reaching into parliamentary services' records, apparently without the Speaker's knowledge. In investigating who released a document that was going to be released anyway, even greater damage has been done to the principles of confidentiality of journalists' sources and of separation of powers between the executive and the legislature.
Both incidents produced significant political and media-coverage impacts – but unnecessarily so, I argue. The PM, and people close to the PM, could have reacted less aggressively than they chose to.
Let's add to this the facts that (1) we must now assume that international spy agencies are hoovering up every bit of electronic communication that gets emitted from anywhere on earth, and (2) the present government would like to pass a law permitting the usage of such communications intelligence for domestic policing. They have made it clear that they might wish in future to allow other governmental agencies (beyond the police, SIS and defense force) to utilise this data. And the control of the intelligence agency concerned is largely in the hands of the PM. It does not have the statutory independence enjoyed by the police, for instance.
Keep in mind that your smart phone records your location, and the metadata that it produces will reveal what you are reading and whom you chat with. We, the people, have to ask whether we wish to live in a society where, for instance, anyone even vaguely suspected of some form of tax-evasion or 'under the table' cash jobs or working without a work-permit can be detected by such means. Even though we may disapprove of such actions, knowing them to be illegal, and even if we are personally not guilty of such things, we have to ask just how much policing and surveillance we are prepared to accept in return for security and the rule of law.
Yes, we do expect that people who may be preparing to launch bomb-attacks are monitored and apprehended before they can carry out their plans. But the present criminal law and powers of search and surveillance should be sufficient for the time being. And if the police and others need more powers, then those powers must be justified openly in public forums if they are to be legitimate. Just as we have had vigorous public debates about police officers wearing side-arms, so we need an equally vigorous debate about communications intelligence techniques (that were originally meant for monitoring foreigners) being applied domestically. And that debate needs to be an informed one. We need to know exactly what are the technologies in use and how intrusive they can be. The public are being duped by the GCSB Bill's application to New Zealanders, as no-one is telling us what the GCSB is actually able to do. Secret policing is not acceptable in a democratic society.
An irascible Prime Minister who throws more weight than he needs to at those who merely embarrass him is not a person whom I'd trust with even wider powers than he presently exercises, let alone secret powers. And, of course, we don't know what future leaders might be like...
It's obvious that many opposition MPs are concerned about the extensions of policing powers presently before the House, but too many gutless others are staying quiet and refusing to pay heed to widespread concern.

01 August 2013

OK. Let's kill that GCSB Bill!

Andrea Vance has good reason to be 'mad as hell' over the intrusion into the privacy of her phone records. And now, thanks to Ed Snowden and the Guardian, it turns out that we all have something to be 'mad as hell' about. All online chats, emails and browsing data are being drag-netted by the NSA, according to a presentation leaked by Snowden. Essentially, the evidence is now out there that, as we suspected, we are, in effect, all being spied upon all of the time.
You can view a training/briefing presentation on the Guardian website concerning a programme known as 'XKeyscore.' A close look reveals that each slide is labelled 'TOP SECRET//COMINT//REL TO USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL,' and the presentation is dated 2008. This strongly suggests that, at least for the last 5 years, the GCSB has had access to a drag-net internet snooping device. The 5-Eyes network, furthermore, gives each country's spy agency the ability to by-pass its own domestic legal prohibitions on spying on its own citizens by letting its foreign partner agencies do that for them. In my last post, I took a soft approach to this issue, based upon the proviso that the GCSB does not use a 'just-in-case surveillance drag-net to fish for criminal or hostile activities.'
Now that there is good evidence out there that the GCSB does have access to such technology, it's time to blow the 'time's up' whistle on the GCSB Bill and go back to basics. Peter Dunne's support for the Bill will no doubt come under much greater pressure. And the recent release of phone logs and private communications needs to be opened up to closer inspection. One anticipates some interesting debates at the Privileges Committee hearing that will inquire into the disclosure of Ms Vance's phone-call data.
Now we need also to be asking what other, possibly more intrusive, technologies the GCSB may be using, and whether they are reasonably required for the purposes of our national security.

The image below is downloaded from theguardian.com: