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Friday, July 11, 2003
CORPORATE WELFARE II: No Right Turn respond to my post yesterday defending the government's film subsidies. Unsurprisingly, they object, not to welfare for companies per se, but rather to the recipient of that welfare in this particular case.

Part of the basis for this seems to be a desire to help the poor, not the rich. But the two aren't mutually exclusive, and I don't particularly care if the rich get richer if the poor get richer too.

The other part seems to be the idea that attracting international film-makers won't "build something of lasting value to the New Zealand economy." According to No Right Turn, the film industry "produces no infrastructure, no lasting investment ... It's basically strip-mining." This is a stretch. The more films that are shot here, the higher our profile becomes, the more films are likely to be shot here, the more tourists are likely to be attracted here etc. Moreover, as the example of Weta illustrates, single films can contribute to the growth of enterprises that will survive well after they have gone. And even if they didn't, the fact that benefits are short term doesn't mean they're not benefits. Gift horse. Mouth.
Thursday, July 10, 2003
CORPORATE WELFARE?: It seems that Labour's film subsidies are unpopular with both the left and right. No Right Turn complained last week about the latest "package of corporate welfare", and Rodney Hide's been making similar noises. There are two problems with their analysis. The first is that they only focus on the proposal's costs. The second is that they appear to greatly overestimate them.

The proposal gives a subsidy of 12.5% of film and TV production costs provided at least $50 million is spent within NZ. For a $50 million film, that wouldn't otherwise have come to NZ, that's a government outlay of $6.25 million. But they will also recoup some of this in tax. (It is possible, though unlikely, that they could recoup more in tax than they will pay out.) The wages alone (assuming these make up, say, 30% of the film's budget) should generate about $3 million in tax revenue (20% of 30% of $50 million).

The ultimate figure will depend on a variety of other factors, including:

- additional taxation revenue on 'second round' expenditure (spending by those who receive the initial $50 million), 'third round' expenditure and so on;
- the number of films qualifying for the subsidy would have been produced in NZ anyway (and therefore don't generate extra tax revenue);
- inflationary pressure resulting from increased demand (which would erode the value of the tax revenue);
- compliance costs (e.g. of collecting the taxes) etc.

However, the point is that the costs are unlikely to be anywhere near as high as either No Right Turn or Mr. Hide assume. Once we take into account the overall effect on the economy of the extra investment the proposal should generate, this doesn't seem like such a bad deal after all.

It may be easy politically to label this as welfare for Hollywood fat cats, but if there's one thing I'd trust Labour not to do, it's pander unnecessarily to corporate interests. I don't think this proposal does anything of the sort.
Tuesday, July 08, 2003
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS NZPOLS: It may be vaguely surprising for readers to learn that NZPOLS isn't entirely located in New Zealand at the moment. In fact, I'm currently living in the beautiful, cosmopolitan colonial city of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. I'm here for a couple of months doing fieldwork for my master's thesis (The Political Economy of Dollarization in Ecuador).

So, because I can, I'm going to interrupt the regular broadcasts for a small slice of la vida en Quito. In particular, to relate an odd thing that happened a day or so ago, one of those semi-regular events that makes me thank the gods I have a NZ passport and can leave at any time and return home to our paradaiso casi perfecto.

So a couple of days ago I was in Café Lennon, about 3 minutes from home. It´s a narrow and crumbling café with mismatched chairs and tables which spill out onto the footpath where the streetkids hang out. I ordered a té coca (translated on the English side of the menu as 'cocain tea') but they brought me a café con leche instead that was black and thick enough to suffice.

I sat facing the window, the only customer, when suddenly a police truck rushed by. Then another. The waiter shouted and ran out into the street. He grabbed a table from outside and threw it inside the door where I was sitting. Then he did the same with two chairs. A third police truck came, going a bit more slowly. I couldn't be sure, but it looked oddly like the police were picking up the tables and chairs too and putting them in their trucks. The police were definitely shouting a lot, and the waiter was shouting back, and he and an old man who appeared from somewhere started gathering as many tables and chairs as they could from outside and stacking them up in front of the door as fast as they could, yelling at each other to hurry up. The whole thing took about 30 seconds.

I sat kind of bemused, then once the two guys had brought everything inside, I went to the window and saw the police disappearing around the corner. The back of the last truck was full of furniture. The café to the right still had ten or so tables outside full of gringos and their waiters hadn´t made any moves to get them inside.

The old man counted the furniture and said, "They took two chairs and a table!"

"What's going on?" I asked the younger waiter. He told me to wait, and he and the old man arranged the tables as best they could in the tiny café, then went and stood in the middle of the road, pointing in all directions.

Finally they came back in and the old man announced, "They're bad men. They're robbers."

The younger waiter grabbed a chair (no shortage) and sat down with me. He explained that the café needed an official permit to put tables outside, but that they couldn't afford to pay the bribes that the municipal police demanded to process their application. And so the police come by every so often -- this was the second time that week -- and steal their tables. The café to the right pays the bribes, and so it isn´t touched. Apparently it's the only one in the street -- all the others are subject to table-and-chair raids.

Reminds me of a Spanish lesson I had in Guatemala once. It was immersion Spanish, so all the explanations of meanings and grammar were in Spanish as well -- in fact, my teacher didn't speak any English. He was trying to explain the word ´fear´, which I didn´t know. And the first example he thought of was, "It´s the emotion you feel when you see a police officer".
Monday, July 07, 2003
CORNGATE II: On some levels, the recent discovery of genetically modified corn in Gisborne isn't particuarly interesting. Even assuming you accept that GE is a bad thing, in the long term, some amount of genetic contamination is unavoidable, and this 'scare' simply demonstrates that. At another level however, it illustrates a peculiar paradox that the Greens find themselves in: they need these very scares (which they ultimately want to prevent) in order to maintain public support for their position. This necessitates treading some rather delicate lines.

The Greens want to run with their instincts, and scream about how much damage this discovery will do to the NZ economy. But taking this too far is dangerous. If GE scares like this can do 'huge' damage to our economy, even under a moratorium, then it wouldn't seem we'd have a lot to lose from going the whole (genetically engineered) hog. If we're going to wear the publicity costs of GE 'contamination' regardless, then we might as well try to tap into some of the benefits as well.

As such, the Green's have tried to focus attention on ERMA: claiming that it isn't capable of providing adequate safeguards against genetic 'contamination' (even though in this case, it was well within 'safe' thresholds). But even this path is fraught with peril: saying we shouldn't lift the moratorium because ERMA is incompetent creates the impression that if ERMA were strengthened, it would be okay to open up a bit more. Ultimately, it seems it would actually be in the Green's interests for ERMA to be a little incompetent, and let in enough GE crops to give us all a good scare every now and then, if that meant they could retain the moratorium.

Ah, the joy of politics.
BUYING JUSTICE: Stephen Franks has jumped on the Weekend Herald's 'people shouldn't be able to buy justice' bandwagon. This isn't something I usually have a great deal of time for: it's sensible to take offers of reparation into account in sentencing. But today I thought he had a point.

It wasn't this:

"No one should be able to expect to buy a reduced sentence. Rather, they should know that if they have the means, yet have not offered amends, the sentence will be harsher."

Superficially this seems reasonable, but it doesn't actually avoid the buying justice problem at all: reparations still 'buy' you a lower sentence than you would otherwise get; it's just that under Mr. Franks' preferred scheme you start from a higher baseline. In other words, it's simply a disguised call for tougher sentences. (There are of course valid arguments in favour of tougher sentences, but if you want them, you should argue for them explicitly, not by sleight of hand.)

It was this:

"these offers [should be] enforceable as court orders, and [we should] allow judges to fix a higher sentence to be served if the criminal renege[s] on the offer."

It seems fairly obvious that if reparations are to be taken into account in sentencing, we should at least attempt to guarantee that they're paid. Nonetheless, while Franks' suggestion may ultimately be right, the issues are a little more complex than they first appear. For starters, we don't actually know the number of offers that are reneged on: the figures quoted by the Herald - that 15% of reparations are never paid - include both sums offered by offenders and sums ordered as reparation by the courts. I suspect that the latter, which are already legally enforceable, constitute the larger part of this, so Mr. Franks suggestion may not make a great deal of difference here.

Moreover, while one would think that anything that reduces the percentage of reparations not paid out would still be a welcome change, this isn't necessarily true, if it simultaneously manages to shrink the overall pool of money being offered. Even if offenders would ultimately be able to pay a particular sum, they may be less willing to offer it if they know they can be made legally accountable for failure to meet their obligations (and given an even higher sentence than they would have originally attracted.) If this effect outweighs the that of a reduced default rate, then we might actually be worse off making reparation offers legally enforceable. Whether or not this would be the case depends upon a number of factual assumptions, but they're not completely implausible ones. (I got a bit mathsy and decided to try to demonstrate this more formally below. But it's as much for my own edification as anything else. Feel free to ignore it.)

Addendum: Boring Maths
I assume the following.

(a) The percentage of reparation offers not currently paid is about 10%.
(b) The percentage of offers that would still not be paid even if the offers were legally enforceable is about 2%
(c) The likely reduction in the amount of offers made as a result of their being legally enforceable is about 10%
(d) We value alternative punishments (such as longer jail sentences) for people who don't pay at about 80% of the value of the the reparations.
(e) In about 20% of cases where reparations are offered but not paid, it isn't feasible to impose other sentences (e.g. because the only option for the paticular type of offence in question is a fine anyway).

The value of the alternative punishment/reparation regimes can be approximated by something along the lines of the following equation:

U = R + 0.8A

where R is the amount of reparations paid, and A is a measure of alternative punishment meted out (discounted for the reason given in (d) above.)

Un is the situation where offers are not legally enforceable; Ue is the situation where they are.

The amount of reparations paid, R, is determined by the following equation:

R = Q*(1-d) ; where Q is the total amount of reparations offered and d is the default rate on these offers.

Under scheme n:

Qn = 100, dn = 0.1, and An = 0


Rn = 100*(1-0.1) = 90; and

Un = 90.

Under scheme e:

Qe = 90, de = 0.02, and Ae = 0.8*(Qe*de)


Ue = 90(1-0.02) + 0.8*[0.8*(90*0.02)] = 89.351

As Un > Ue, on this utilitarian style approach, leaving the rights unenforceable would be a better solution. It's tight, and the assumptions that lead to it are far from watertight, but the point is not that Franks is wrong, just that he's not obviously right.

NB: This obviously doesn't take account of distributional concerns. We may think it's better that some victims who get something under scheme e (as opposed to nothing under scheme n) is worth the overall reduction in what the rest get. But this will also depend on how many offenders no longer offer to pay any reparations at all as a result of them becoming legally enforceable.
Sunday, July 06, 2003
THE SAGA CONTINUES: Kiwi Pundit reckons that the Privy Council's preference for upholding individual rights against government meddling, and thus his preference for the Privy Council, isn't about ideology. Instead, he claims it's based on the well-established legal principle that:

"we should be free to act as we please unless the law says otherwise, [which] is not connected with any particular ideology that I am aware of."

While it's a nice try, I don't think he quite manages to extract himself from the charges of hypocrisy I levelled against him previously. Here's why.

Kiwi Pundit's case relies on the truth of two propositions:

(1) that the 'freedom to act' principle (F) isn't based on a particular ideology; and

(2) that Privy Council decisions he likes (because they protect individual rights) are justifiable on the basis of (F) (or, to put it another way, that (F) protects individual rights).

If either is false, then it seems difficult to escape the conclusion that Kiwi Pundit's Privy Council fetish is based on ideological bias. The problem (for him) is that they're mutually exclusive: he can either advance a non-ideological version of (F) that doesn't protect individual rights; or he can protect individual rights by adopting an ideological version of (F); but he can't do both. (The impression that he can arises out of ambiguity in in his use of word 'law'.)

In one sense of course, Kiwi Pundit is right that (F) is not connected with any particular ideology. On this version of the principle, "we should be free to act as we please unless either legislation or the common law says otherwise." However, it is difficult to equate this with the protection of individual rights. If (F) allows judge-made common law to legitimately infringe individual rights, it cannot provide any independent reason why judges should favour rights protection. Any independent preference for rights protection must therefore be based on ideology.

Kiwi Pundit tries to get around this by adopting an alternative form of (F), under which "we should be free to act as we please unless legislation says otherwise." This appears to save (2) because it seems to allow infringements of individual rights only when these have been debated by Parliament. In fact, it doesn't even accomplish this much: the principle that 'we are free to act unless legislation says otherwise' would allow individuals to breach each other's rights where Parliament has not legislated to prevent this. (It would, for example, require the abandonment of tort law, and allow us to negligently injure others without being obliged to pay any damages at all - let alone exemplary ones.)

Moreover, even assuming that this version of (F) can save (2), it can do so only by adopting a particular ideological stance: saying that only Parliament should be able to impair individual freedom creates (surprise) an explicit bias in favour of individual freedom. Kiwi Pundit tries admirably to dress this up as a bias in favour of democracy, claiming that allowing judges to infringe such freedom reduces democratic accountability. But it's not particularly convincing. Parliament can always pass laws to overrule judicial decisions if it wishes, just as it can pass laws to overrule individual rights. The only thing that changes is whether the the default position is more or less libertarian; neither solution is any more or less democratic.
Friday, July 04, 2003
THE ON-GOING SAGA OF THE SUPREME COURT: Kiwi Pundit has an extensive post today on the Privy Council issue. It's worth a read. He agues that we should both:

(1) create a extra judicial layer in between the current High Court and Court of Appeal (instead of a new Supreme Court above the CA); and

(2) at the same time retain appeals to the Privy Council.

The first suggestion is a fair one, which I essentially agree with. For the reasons Kearney sets out, I think it would be preferable to a new Supreme Court, (though I'm willing to wear a new Supreme Court if that's what it comes to). It does however, seem a little inconsistent with two other claims he's made.

(a) That the cost of the Supreme Court is unwarranted. If this is the case, then why is the cost of an extra appellate layer below the Supreme Court any different?

(b) That as a result of introducing an extra layer, we'll end up with law graduates filling the benches of the District Court. Now, I think this suggestion is somewhat absurd to begin with, but if Kiwi Pundit really thinks this, then can he please explain how his proposed new tier will avoid this problem?

The more interesting point is the combination of this proposal with the retention of appeals to the Privy Council. The reason: Kiwi Pundit doesn't trust our Court of Appeal, and wants the security provided by the Privy Council as an added backstop against their bungles.

He rejects my earlier argument that the Court of Appeal's failings are largely due to structural factors, claiming that they are not overworked compared with other appeal courts. I think he's stretching on this one. He argues that the US Supreme Court workload is far higher than suggested by the 79 appeals they disposed of. Fair. But the Court of Appeal's workload is also far higher than the 737 appeals they disposed of: include other orders in the NZ statistics and the numbers double. I specifically excluded such orders from my statistics in order to keep them roughly comparable. He also argues that many Court of Appeal judgments require little more than a short unanimous opinion. Fine. But does this really account for the entire disparity of 658 cases?

Kiwi Pundit does have a point: statistics can be misleading. This suggests that we should perhaps listen to judges who have sat on both the Privy Council and the Court of Appeal, and have stated unequivocally that they think the NZ Court of appeal is overworked, and that this affects the quality of their judgments.

In any event, after reading Kearney's post it becomes clear that his true concern is not the 'quality' of New Zealand judges in any impartial sense, but the fact that Privy Council decisions generally accord better with a particular ideological bias:

"The Privy Council consistently shows a respect for the rights of individuals ... The Court of Appeal ... is less willing to uphold individual rights ... the Supreme Court proposal will accelerate the NZ judicial trend away from individual rights and towards increased government power."

If this is the real reason for favouring the retention of the Privy Council, it begins to seem somewhat hypocritical to accuse Margaret Wilson of stacking a new court with judges of her own ideological persuasion, when all Privy Council defenders are really doing is trying to ensure that it remains stacked with judges of theirs. Dressing one up as 'quality' while dressing the other down as political manipulation is simply disingenuous, and only serves to emphasise why we should bring our highest court home.

Once it is accepted that judges are not simply impartial arbiters, but are in fact engaged in making 'political' decisions, it follows that those decisions should reflect the desires of the people that are affected by them, not those of judges sitting in another country. The judges appointed to our highest appellate court should be broadly acceptable to those across the poltical spectrum, but that political spectrum should be New Zealand's, not Britain's.
Wednesday, June 25, 2003
PROSTITUTION DECRIMINALISED: After all the doom-mongering in the public press over the last two days (see here, here, here and here) I'd pretty much resigned myself to the Prostitution Reform Bill failing. I thought that Tim Barnett had thrown away his opportunity to get the Bill through when he rejected a suggestion by some members of the ACT party that it be taken back to select committee. (In fact, I still think Mr Barnett took an unnecessary risk in continuing with the Bill, when he should have been able to guarantee its passage.) But in the end he (and we) weren't punished for it. Expect Ashraf Choudhary, the member who abstained (and thereby allowed a 60-59 majority in favour to carry the Bill) to wear a lot of flack for his decision.
Tuesday, June 24, 2003
IN LATEBREAKING NEWS: Our darned comments thingee is bloggered again. Please bear with us.

UPDATE: It's back. Yay.
Monday, June 23, 2003
EUROPE SNUBS WORLD'S POOR: Yup. Surprise. Read all about it here (in today's NYT), here or here (The Economist).

TAXING: Some incredibly stupid things are being said at the moment about the "flatulence tax" and other 'Kyoto' initiatives being pursued by this government.

Dail Jones reckons doing anything to further the Kyoto Protocol is contrary to International Law, because it has yet to be ratified by 55% of the signatories. Unless I've missed some intricacy of his argument, this is just absurd. Jones is right that Kyoto is not, as yet, law. But lots of things that governments do aren't mandated or required by international law; that doesn't mean they're in beach of it. Suggesting that the silence of international law on a matter can prevent a government from acting is bizarre.

United Future's Larry Baldock argues that we shouldn't tax cows that produce methane because we can't tax swamps that produce methane. Does this mean that we shouldn't tax anyone in NZ because we can't tax people in Tokyo? Or that, because we can't prevent accidental deaths, we should allow murder? (I could go on, but you get the point.)

Gerry Eckhoff (usually one of the least impressive ACT MPs in terms of intellectual rigor) does somewhat better, arguing that we don't need a levy because private research is sufficient. As I noted yesterday, I probably agree, but think that the tax has other benefits that Mr Eckhoff ignores.

There are coherent arguments against this tax. That United Future and NZ First have come up with ones like those above is somewhat depressing.
NZPOLS=FISH?: Steven Franks doesn't support the prostitution reform Bill, and as usual he makes some valid points.

I still think that on balance the Bill is a good one (I don't have time to set out why, but press releases here and here should give a good overview, even if I don't agree with all of them). However, even if Franks is right, and the Bill does more harm than good when viewed in isolation, I still think it's in the country's long term interests to pass it. It should be possible to tinker with problematic details as they become apparent, once the principle of decriminalisation is accepted by Parliament; whereas if the Bill is defeated now, we're unlikely to see any movement on this for a very long time.

NB: Commentary from United Future is available here, here and here. Can't track down much from anyone else.

UPDATE: Jim Anderton wades into the fray
ENGLISH=FISH?: Peter Dunne also spotted Bill English's apparent flip-flop on the impact of Helen Clark's "anti-Bush" comments on our chances of a free trade deal. (See my previous post here.)
SEABED CLAIMS: The politcal fracas over the Court of Appeal's seabed claims decision continues here, here, here, here and here. Tariana Turia agrees with my previous post claiming that ACT is being completely inconsistent on this (though, unlike her, I actually think they're right.)
Sunday, June 22, 2003
LESBIAN BARBIE: This Reuters report, (link courtesy of How Appealing and the Conspiracy) about a New York teenager who is suing her school because they suspended her for wearing a "Barbie is a lesbian" T-shirt, got me wondering how 'Lesbian Barbie' would fare here in New Zealand. (Assuming it's a mufti day, or a school that doesn't have uniforms.)

Schools have been held not to be covered by the Bill of Rights Act. But they are subject to the anti-discrimination provisions of the Human Rights Act (specifically, section 57). And they'd be in fairly obvious breach. Although they could argue that they weren't discriminating against lesbians because anyone - lesbian or not - wearing a lesbian Barbie T-Shirt would be suspended, this would still constitute indirect discrimination under section 65, either on the grounds of sexuality, or political opinion.

The school could still get away with the prima facie breach if they had a "genuine justification" for it under section 97 of the Act. The argument, presumably, would run something along the lines of protecting young people from harmful things. However, they couldn't rely on homosexuality being considered harmful, so the only way it could succeed is by drawing some sort of analogy with censorship of pornography or other objectionable publications.

Somewhat ironically, the decisions of the Court of Appeal and the Film and Literature Board of Review in Living Word and Re Gay Rights/Special Rights quickly puts paid to any argument of this sort. In those cases, anti-gay videos were deemed unobjectionable, on the basis that they did not deal with "matters such as sex" that could be subject to censorship. The same conclusion would necessarily follow here.

UPDATE: NZPundit doesn't reckon this would fly at his daughter's school.
A TAX ON BOTH YOUR HORSES ... UM, COWS, SHEEP ETC: NZ has been getting a bit of attention in the blogosphere this week over the recently announced levy on the cows, sheep, goats and deer that produce approximately 50% of this country's greenhouse gas emissions. Reaction from most on the right has also been predictable: tax=evil. But is this move actually a bad idea? NZPols thinks not.

Yes, this will hurt farmers, who are already suffering from low milk prices. But the tax is fairly small. It shouldn't amount to more than $300 per annum for most medium sized farms, and the case for or against it should depend more on its microeconomic than its macroeconomic effects. (If you're really worried about the latter, then you can argue that the tax should be delayed, but it won't get you much further than that.)

The government intends the levy to fund about $8.4 million worth of research into methods of reducing the aforementioned gas emissions, on the basis that the privately funded research so far carried out by the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium has not been up to standard. I have absolutely no idea whether this is true or not. However, there are some potentially sound theoretical reasons why this might be the case. The results of such research will be both non-rival and (to some degree) non-excludable: i.e. the reseach is a public good, which suggests a potential role for government. Absent a compulsory levy, one would expect some farmers to attempt to free-ride on research that others paid for, with the result that the research would be underprovided. This would be exacerbated by the fact that there are currently no financial incentives on farmers to reduce emissions.

There are two problems with this line of reasoning however. The first is that it's not clear this has actually happened: instead, the threat of government taxation appears to have acted as an incentive to reduce free-riding, and farmers have chipped in to fund research themsleves (although at $800 000 pa, this is dwarfed by the government's proposed scheme). The second is that it's not clear that government will do any better: it seems equally like to overprovide (who says we need $8.4 million worth of research?); and I've yet to hear a compelling case for why the government's reseach is likely to be any more efficient.

Nonetheless, while the timing could be better, I still think the levy is a step in the right direction.

Why? Because, as well as seeking to fund research, the levy is also, to some degree, a substitute for an earlier proposed tax, designed to reduce our greenhouse emissions. Because the costs of these emissions currently are not internalised, the market does not account for them, leading to excess provision. The levy, although crude (a better solution would probably be an emissions trading market along the lines suggested a few years ago) goes some way to addressing this.

No doubt the government will continue to face vocal opposition to the "flatulence tax" (and we will probably continue to be ribbed from overseas). For our sake, I hope they manage to resist it. Now, if only other countries would follow suit.
WE ARE THE WORLD, WE ARE THE CHILDREN: Greengourd's garden has a nice alternative to the tired old Matrix character quiz that every blog and its dog linked to last week: What country are you? For the record, NZPols is... the United Nations (no, really we are!).
DON'T MATTER IF YOU'RE BLACK OR WHITE: This year I've been studying in a very multi-national, multi-racial graduate student environment. It's brilliant. And it's taught me a lot.

One thing that's struck me in social settings is the degree to which my American-educated friends are obsessed with race. Race race race race race. To most of my American-educated friends, all encounters between people who happen to be white and people who happen to be not-white can be interpreted in terms of 'race'. It seems impossible for those steeped in the highly racialised American tradition to even conceive of a truly post-racial society.

To my American-educated friends, a society is either racialised or is suffering from false consciousness. If you don't think you have race relations problems, then that means you have them baaaaaad.

So this Washington Post article on 'whiteness studies' is illuminating. It's a field you simply don't come across in New Zealand. And I'm not at all convinced that's a bad thing.

PROSTITUTION REFORM - LIBERALS OF LEFT AND RIGHT UNITE: Kiwi Pundit posted this yesterday. You should read it, and do what he says.

"Prostitution Reform Bill: This bill, an attempt to legalise prostitution, will be considered by parliament again this week, as reported in the Herald here. The second vote on the bill, held on 19 February, succeeded by a margin of 62-56, so it's very close. A list of how MPs voted is here.

The bill is not perfect and contains more regulations and politically correct nonsense than I would like, but it's a big improvement on the status quo. Not only is it wrong to criminalise voluntary commercial transactions between consenting adults, but the practice of selective prosecution has become so well established that the opportunities for abuse by the police are enormous, for example here.

Below is a short list of those MPs I believe to be undecided on the bill, with their emails. I'd really appreciate it if you would write to some or all of them, expressing your views.

David Carter ( )
Ashraf Choudhary ( )
Judith Collins ( )
Gerry Eckhoff ( )
Stephen Franks ( )
Martin Gallagher ( )
Phil Goff ( )
John Key ( )
Wayne Mapp ( )
Murray McCully ( )
Simon Power ( )
Lockwood Smith ( )
Nick Smith ( )
Pansy Wong ( )"

Although I also think that the Bill has flaws, I agree with Kiwi Pundit that it's better than the status quo. If it fails now, it won't be back for a very long time.
MOONLIGHT SLEEPING ON A MIDNIGHT TRAIN: The wonderful Matthew Yglesius asked yesterday why there are so many fewer homeless people in his native New York City than in Toronto. He reckons American bums die quicker on the streets, whereas their Canadian cousins limp on.

I've lived in a fair few cities in my short life: in Invercargill (NZ), Dunedin (NZ), central Auckland, Melbourne, in Bielefeld (Germany), in Kingston (Canada), in Oxford (England) and in Antigua (Guatemala). And the differences in the number of homeless people in each city is astounding.

Here in Oxford, where I'm living at the moment, on literally every corner of the main streets there are men and women huddled under blankets, cuddling mangy dogs and holding up cardboard signs. Begging can be quite lucrative in Oxford, because of the fairly liberal student base and the steady flow of thousands of tourists. That's why here, I'm asked for money about three or four times every day.

And in New Zealand? Call me naive, call me blind, call me insulated: but I have never seen such a homeless person. Not one. Ever. And I have certainly never been approached for money. Not in my provincial hometown, not in NZ's regional cities, not even in downtown Central Auckland where I lived and worked.

I'm not saying there aren't any homeless people in NZ. Of course there are. But they must be sleeping rough in a park, or on a mate's floor maybe, or constantly being moved on by the police, or somehow hidden. Overall, the incidence of homelessness in New Zealand is clearly far, far, far less than here in Oxford.

It's also much less than in Australian cities, where I've often been approached for money. And this, I think, is even harder to account for. Is it our different welfare policies? Some highly efficient homeless charity? Different weather patterns?

My best answer -- indeed, my only satisfactory answer -- is that it's due to different drug use patterns. According to British charities who specialise in working with homeless people, most Oxford beggers are heroin addicts. And the poor saps who used to ask me for money in Melbourne were clearly desperate for a hit. (The Melbourne beggars' addictions weren't immediately obvious to me. One of the most sickening moments of my life was seeing a girl about my age in an alley near Melbourne's Crown casino and realising she was the girl who'd spun me a line an hour before -- and that the 'bus money' I'd just given her had financed her frying herself just one more time that night. I had no idea.)

NZ tends to follow drug trends in other Western countries, with a slight time lag. So if I'm right, and it's heroin addiction that causes the homelessness, it's only a matter of time before New Zealand goes the way of Toronto, Melbourne, Sydney, Oxford, and so on. If I'm right, neither libertarian solutions nor a welfare state will help the homeless once heroin use in Auckland spreads. If I'm right, the best way to combat the problem is though preventative drugs policies.

If any readers have other theories (or, better, evidence!) on this I'd love to hear them.
EWWWWW: Public computers are pretty unhygienic. I've often screwed up my nose at the sweating drippy sneezers and ball-scratchers and zitty pus-producers sitting next to me in university computing labs and wondered just what that sticky stuff is they're leaving on the mouse. If you're reading this on a public computer, check out the keys. Gross, aren't they?

Now researchers have blamed an outbreak of 'pink-eye' (conjunctivitis) at Dartmouth College in the USA partly on shared keyboards on campus. Yuck.
Saturday, June 21, 2003
THE PRIVY COUNCIL, THE SUPREME COURT, AND BOB JONES: Kiwi Pundit has welcomed Thursday's Privy Council decision to grant an appeal by Sir Bob Jones' (against the Court of Appeal's summary dismissal of his complaint against a Police Officer in relation to a traffic incident). He goes on to opine that the Court of Appeal's error "adds further weight to the case for retaining the Privy Council as our final appellate court."

Unsurprisingly, NZPols begs to differ. Not only does the decision do little to further the case for the retention of the Privy Council, it also provides a clear illustration of why we should bring our final appeal court back home.

The Privy Council's judgment itself is probably correct (though I am less optimistic about the chances of Mr. Jones' substantive cause of action succeeding). Moreover, I'm prepared to accept that, on balance, the Privy Council has a better decision-making record than the Court of Appeal. Indeed, if our highest Appellate Court didn't have a better record than its immediate inferior, you'd be worried, especially when you've got a requirement for special leave to appeal that weeds out all but the handful of cases most likely to be overturned.

However, this doesn't matter particularly for the Supreme Court vs. Privy Council argument. Contrary to the assertions of Privy Council defenders, this trend isn't evidence that New Zealand doesn't have the calibre of judges to sustain a domestically based court of final appeal. The 'poorer' quality decisions of the Court of Appeal is not due to poor quality judges. Rather, it reflects structural constraints on the Court of Appeal's decision-making.

In 1999, the NZ Court of Appeal disposed of 737 appeals. By contrast, UK House of Lords and the Privy Council combined disposed of 140. (The US Supreme Court disposed of only 79.) I have heard at least one previous member of the Court of Appeal recount how its incredibly high workload affects judges' ability, not only to make individual decisions, but also to engage in the wider research and reading that is integral to high quality decision-making in the long term. (As an aside, one also gets the impression that the Department for Courts is chronically under-resourced. A friend who clerks for one of the current Court of Appeal judges recently had a request for a desklamp declined due to lack of funding!) Under such circumstances, it should not come to us as any surprise that the Court of Appeal sometimes makes mistakes. Indeed, it is a credit to the quality of our judges that they make so few.

So what does the Jones decision really illustrate? Consider how many people apart from our dear friend Sir Robert would have been able to take an appeal like this to the highest court 'in' the land. This case shows us exactly why we need our own Supreme Court: so that people other than just Sir Robert can have access to justice.
Friday, June 20, 2003
WHALING (AGAIN): I've already posted on why we probably shouldn't have a South Pacific whale sanctuary. The Dom-Post today disagrees.

To the extent that the piece contains anything resembling an argument, it runs something like this.

(1) More people dislike whaling than like it, so whaling should be stopped.

Majority rule arguments like this aren't generally something liberals (on either the left or the right) are attracted to, even less so when they involve states rather than individuals. Moreover, they're likely to be counterproductive. If you rely on majority will to batter your opponents into submission in a forum like the IWC, they may just get up and leave. If you're going to argue against whaling, at least grace us with an argument.

(2) Having alive whales is good for New Zealand whale-watching enterprises, so whaling should be stopped.

The link between the premise and the conclusion assumes that killing some whales is the same thing as killing all whales; or, to put it another way, that there is no such thing as sustainable whaling. The evidence (as well as common sense) suggests otherwise.

ALSO: Check out these posts from Darkness, Circling Apollo and Tam I Am).
BACKTRACKING?: Bill English seems to have admitted that Helen Clark's now-infamous Bush-Gore comments probably didn't affect our chances of a free trade deal that much after all. Commenting on his talks with US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage:

"I think the lesson is that if New Zealand had been able to come to the table alongside Australia then we would be getting a FTA. But that fell off the table two or three years back and it looks like that's too late."
THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF POLITICS: Talk about playing the man and not the ball.

John Tamihere opines that older Maori leaders should make way for new blood.

Predictably this bring brings scorn from said older Maori leaders, and support from the new blood.

Less predictably, it also brings an angry Winston Peters to level fraud allegations against him under Parliamentary privilege (Hansard transcripts here and here).

Turns out Tamihere plead guilty to a fraud charge a few years back, though he was discharged without conviction (and details of the case were supressed), and still maintains he was completely innocent.

MAORI CLAIMS TO FORESHORE AND SEABED - MORE ACT INCONSISTENCY: ACT deputy leader Ken Shirley is calling on Helen Clark to 'act consistently' in relation to yesterday's Court of Appeal decision (available in pdf form here) that the Maori Land Court has jurisdiction to hear claims relating to the foreshore and seabed. I am reminded of a saying to do with pots and kettles.

Mr. Shirley seems to claim that the government should rely on the Territorial Exclusive Economic Zone Act and Foreshore and Seabed Empowering and Reinvestment Act as negating customary title. It's not entirely clear what he means by this, but it's either constitutionally illegitimate, or inconsistent with ACT's own principles.

Constitutionally illegitimate because a five-judge bench of the Court of Appeal has just unanimously decided that he is wrong, and that neither of these acts has any effect on customary title. The case (as with most that reach the Court of Appeal) was arguable, but that's why we have courts: to settle such disputes definitively. It's not the place of government (or for that matter Mr. Shirley) to question them.

If the government is to get involved here, the only legitimate way for it to do so is to have Parliament pass another law that clearly removes any remaining Maori customary rights to the seabed and foreshore. But the inconsistency of ACT's supporting such nationalisation of private property intetrests is simply astounding. What's happened to the party of principle, advocating one standard of citizenship for all?

Of course 'inconsistent with ACT's principles' is not the same thing as 'wrong', and ACT's inconsistency does not excuse the same fault in Helen Clark. The government has recently shown itself willing to consider the 'national interest' in relation to Treaty claims, and should continue to do so. However, the problem may be more complex here than it first appears. Because Maori customary rights are not necessarily the same as freehold title, it may be that their recognition will have little effect on the national interest. Although we can guess, we won't really know in each case until the Maori Land Court determines the issue. While the 'national interest' is important, we shouldn't rush into nationalisation just yet.

UPDATE: Although I disagree with Kiwi Pundit, at least he's consistent.
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
GAY MARRIAGE: In response to the recent decision of the Ontario Court of appeal the Canadian Cabinet has announced that it will move to allow gay couples to marry. Kiwi Pundit doesn't reckon we should give them too much credit for this, as the courts probably would have done it anyway. I'm inclined to be a little more charitable: I suspect that the court decision has simply given the government the opportunity to do this without wearing too much of the flak from conservatives themselves.

Unfortunately, unlike the (apparent) situation in the US, section 3 of our Marriage Act means NZ won't recognise gay marriages solemnised in Canada. But it will be interesting to see whether the decision has any spillover effect here regardless. Perhaps the current battle with Peter Dunne over the Care of Children Bill is just testing the waters.
WHEN PRINCIPLES AND POLITICS CLASH: The Libertarianz appear to have a point in questioning Muriel Newman's liberal credentials when she slams the government for failing to crack down on Meth. Politically of course, the 'tough on crime' line's a winner. But it does seem a bit odd coming from a bunch that just last week was raving about how it was the only party of principle left in Parliament.
WHALING: NZ's recently defeated bid to establish a South Pacific whale sanctuary reminded me of a Gwynne Dyer article I read in (of all places) the ODT a couple of years back. It still seems rather apposite.

Salient points:

(1) NZ is being a little hypocritical in denouncing Japanese 'stacking' of the IWC. We did the exactly the same thing with countries like Belize, Costa Rica and Senegal to get the current moratorium passed in 1986.

(2) Some degree of whaling is sustainable (check out the IWC site.)

(3) The real reason for wanting to ban whaling has less to do with conservation (as most people assume), and more to do with squeamishness about killing animals that are 'intelligent'.

Personally, I'm not huge on animal rights - killing animals for no particular reason disturbs me, but probably as much for what it potentially says about the people doing the killing than any innate sense of injustice. In any event, I'm unconvinced that forcing 'our' conception of animal rights on countries like Japan and Norway is justifiable, beyond what is strictly necessary to sustain the species.

At the very least, if the debate is really about whether it's right to kill whales, let's have a debate about whether it's right to kill whales, rather than hiding behind sustainability arguments.

It may also be worth checking out Dan Goodman's criticism of Greenpeace's stance, and Greenpeace's (somewhat less convincing) response.

UPDATE: As well as this piece from today's herald that I missed earlier.
APOLOGIES: for the recent lack of activity on this site. Your correspondents have been respectively bed-ridden (with flu) and exam-ridden (with, um ... exams). We'll be resuming normal broadcasts soon.
Sunday, June 15, 2003
ANOTHER AGE-OLD TRADITION UNDER THREAT: The Economist (sorry, subscribers only) writes that Bill Frist, the Republican leader in the Senate is pushing "'with regret but determination' to restrict the right of senators to 'filibuster' a presidential nomination - in other words, to keep talking until the nomination is withdrawn or shelved." Currently, filibusters can only be overridden by a 'cloture' vote, requiring a supermajority of 60 of the 100 Senators. Frist intends to reduce this progressively to 51, and then a simple majority of the members present.

The ostensible justification for the move rests on the idea that the filibuster, in providing a means for a passionate minority to oppose the will of the majority, is anti-democratic. However, the real reason is more likely the upcoming resignations of two Republican-appointed judges from the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, and Sandra Day-O'Connor. Republicans fear that, in the face of democratic filibusters their 51 seat majority in the Senate will not be enough to get their preferred replacements appointed. (Indeed, two Bush-nominees for lower judicial positions have already been blocked this year.)

This is not, of course, to say that the objections to filibusters should not be taken seriously: to the extent that democracy is equated with simple majoritarianism they are undeniably un-democratic. However, as the Economist points out, the US constitution is full of features designed to protect against the 'tyranny of the majority' (the prime example being the Supreme Court itself). Moreover, the Republican's target is not all filibusters; only those directed at judicial nominations are to be subject to the new cloture requirements.

Frist argues that this is because normal legislation has other means of overcoming a block in the Senate, while judicial appointments do not. However, it seems odd that appointments to a body which is itself designed as an anti-majoritarian safety measure should be made in the face of such vehement minority opposition as a filibuster requires. (Despite Republican accusation of Democratic misuse, filibustering expends valuable political capital, and is unlikely to be used lightly: Democrats did not, for example use it to block the appointment of John Ashcroft.)

In fact, it is arguable that judicial appointments should require a supermajority as a matter of course, even without an attempted filibuster. A less politically charged Supreme Court could not only bring more stability to constitutional law, but also serve to shift debate about many currently vexed issues (e.g. abortion, civil rights vs. national security and the death penalty) back into the political realm where they belong (see my earlier post on 'the false promise of judicial activism'.)

Somewhat ironically, the proposed amendments require a (virtually unachievable) 67 vote majority to pass. That is, unless Vice-President Dick Cheney exercises what has been dubbed the 'nuclear option' and unilaterally rules that filibusters do not apply to judicial appointments. Whether Republicans are willing to suffer the fallout of that remains to be seen.
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