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I was invited to speak at a forum in Wellington on the “Privacy Security Dilemma.” It included a variety of people from government, the private sector, academia and public interest groups. The discussion basically revolved around the issue of whether the quest for security in the current era is increasingly infringing on the right to privacy. There were about 150 people present, a mixture of government servants, students, retirees, academics, foreign officials and a few intelligence officers.

There were some interesting points made, including the view that in order to be free we must be secure in our daily lives (Professor Robert Ayson), that Anglo-Saxon notions of personal identity and privacy do not account for the collective nature of identity and privacy amongst Maori (Professor Karen Coutts), that notions of privacy are contextual rather than universal (Professor Miriam Lips), that in the information age we may know more but are no wiser for it (Professor Ayson), that mass intrusions of privacy in targeted minority groups in the name of security leads to alienation, disaffection and resentment in those groups (Anjum Rahman), and that in the contemporary era physical borders are no impediment to nefarious activities carried out by a variety of state and non-state actors (various).

We also heard from Michael Cullen and Chris Finlayson. Cullen chaired the recent Intelligence Review and Finlayson is the current Minister of Security and Intelligence. Cullen summarised the main points of the recommendations in the Review and was kind enough to stay for questions after his panel. Finlayson arrived two hours late, failed to acknowledge any of the speakers other than Privacy Commissioner John Edwards (who gave an encouraging talk), read a standard stump speech from notes, and bolted from the room as soon as as he stopped speaking.

Thomas Beagle gave a strong presentation that was almost Nicky Hageresque in its denouncement of government powers of surveillance and control. His most important point, and one that I found compelling, was that the issue is not about the tradeoff between security and privacy but between security and power. He noted that expanded government security authority was more about wielding power over subjects than about simply infringing on privacy. If I understand him correctly, privacy is a commodity in a larger ethical game.

Note that I say commodity rather than prize. “Prize” is largely construed as a reward, gain, victory or the achievement of some other coveted objective, especially in the face of underhanded, dishonest, unscrupulous and often murderous opposition.  However, here privacy is used as a pawn in a larger struggle between the state and its subjects. Although I disagree with his assessment that corporations do not wield power over clients when they amass data on them, his point that the government can and does wield (often retaliatory) power over people through the (mis) use of data collection is sobering at the very least.

When I agreed to join the forum I was not sure exactly what was expected from me. I decided to go for some food for thought about three basic phrases used in the information gathering business, and how the notion of consent is applied to them.

The first phrase is “bulk collection.” Bulk collection is the wholesale acquisition and storage of data for the purposes of subsequent trawling and mining in pursuit of more specific “nuggets” of actionable information. Although signals intelligence agencies such as the GCSB are known for doing this, many private entities such as social media platforms and internet service providers also do so. Whereas signals intelligence agencies may be looking for terrorists and spies in their use of filters such as PRISM and XKEYSCORE, private entities use data mining algorithms for marketing purposes (hence the targeted advertisements on social media).

“Mass surveillance” is the ongoing and undifferentiated monitoring of collective behaviour for the purposes of identifying, targeting and analysing the behaviour of specific individuals or groups. It is not the same thing as bulk collection, if for no other reason than it has a more immediate, real-time application. Mass surveillance is done by a host of public agencies, be it the Police via CCTV coverage of public spaces, transportation authorities’ coverage of roadways, railroads and airports,  local council coverage of recreational facilities and areas, district health board monitoring of hospitals, etc. It is not only public agencies that engage in mass surveillance. Private retail outlets, shopping centres and malls, carparks, stadiums, entertainment venues, clubs, pubs, firms and gated communities all use mass surveillance. We know why they do so, just as we know why public agencies do so (crime prevention being the most common reason), but the salient fact is that they all do it.

“Targeted spying” is the covert or surreptitious observation and monitoring of targeted individuals and groups in order to identify specific activities and behaviours. It can be physical or electronic (i.e. via direct human observation or video/computer/telephone intercepts). Most of this is done by the Police and government intelligence agencies such as the SIS, and most often it is done under warrant (although the restrictions on warrantless spying have been loosened in the post 9/11 era). Yet, it is not only government security and intelligence agencies that undertake targeted spying. Private investigators, credit card agencies, debt collectors, background checking firms and others all use this as a tool of their trades.

What is evident on the face of things is that all of the information gathering activities mentioned here violate not only the right to privacy but also the presumption of innocence, particularly the first two. Information is gathered on a mass scale regardless of whether people are violating the law or, in the case of targeted spying, on the suspicion that they are.

The way governments have addressed concerns about this basic violation of democratic principles is through the warrant system. But what about wholesale data-gathering by private as well as public entities? Who gives them permission to do so, and how?

That is where informed consent comes in. Informed consent of the electorate is considered to be a hallmark of robust or mature democracies. The voting public are aware of and have institutional channels of expression and decision-making influence when it comes to the laws and regulations that govern their communal relations.

But how is that given? As it turns out, in the private sphere it is given by the phrase “terms and conditions.” Be it when we sign up to a social media platform or internet service, or when we park our cars, or when we enter a mall and engage in some retail therapy, or when we take a cab, ride the bus or board a train, there are public notices governing the terms and conditions of use of these services that include giving up the right to privacy in that particular context. It may be hidden in the fine print of an internet provider service agreement, or on a small sticker in the corner of a mall or shop entry, or on the back of a ticket, but in this day and age the use of a service comes attached with it the forfeiture of at least some degree of privacy. As soon as we tick on a box agreeing to the terms or make use of a given service, we consent to that exchange.

One can rightly argue that many people do not read the terms or conditions of service contracts. But that is the point: just as ignorance is no excuse for violation of the law, ignorance of the terms of service does not mean that consent has not been given. But here again, the question is how can this be informed consent? Well, it is not.

That takes us to the public sphere and issues of governance. The reality is that many people are not informed and do not even think that their consent is required for governments to go about their business. This brings up the issue of “implicit,” “implied” or inferred” consent. In Latin American societies the view is that if you do not say no then you implicitly mean yes. In Anglophone cultures the reverse is true: if you do not explicitly say yes than you mean no. But in contemporary Aotearoa, it seems that the Latin view prevails, as the electorate is often uninformed, disinterested, ignorant of and certainly not explicitly consenting to many government policy initiatives, including those in the security field and with regards to basic civil liberties such as the right to privacy and presumption of innocence.

One can argue that in representative democracy consent is given indirectly via electoral processes whereby politicians are elected to exercise the will of the people. Politicians make the laws that govern us all and the people can challenge them in neutral courts. Consent is given indirectly and is contingent on the courts upholding the legality if not legitimacy of policy decisions.

But is that really informed contingent consent? Do we abdicate any say about discrete policy decisions and legislative changes once we elect a government? Or do we broadly do so at regular intervals, say every three years, and then just forget about having another say until the next election cycle? I would think and hope not. And yet, that appears to be the practice in New Zealand.

Therein lies the rub. When it comes to consenting to intrusions on our privacy be they in the private or public sphere, we are more often doing so in implicit rather than informed fashion. Moreover, we tend to give broad consent to governments of the day rather than offer it on a discrete, case by case, policy by policy, law by law basis. And because we do so, both public authorities and private agencies can collect, store, manipulate and exchange our private information at their discretion rather than ours.

Not Quite But Getting There

datePosted on 15:11, May 23rd, 2016 by E.A.

It seems that Labour might have finally gotten the memo about getting it’s A into G but perhaps not quite digested the content. Still it’s a start. The last month has seen a steady stream of both Labour and Little in the media, highlighting issues in the electorate and proposing solutions (Panama papers, housing, hotel deals, house prices, fishing quotas etc)

National continues to say that is nothing but “slogans” which is rich coming from them but let’s put the bitterness aside for the moment and have a bit more of a look at the situation.

On my first post about Labour I referred to them needing to come up with something new and that trying the same old policy routine was not going to win them the election from an entrenched National. A few weeks ago I noted that Andrew Little needed to be on the attack if he and the party was actually going make traction in the media and with the electorate.

The rationale behind these two points is simple and my “scouring” of both the mainstream media in NZ and the blogsphere has turned up similar sentiments, the key points of which are that Labour needs to get back to its real roots to atone for the heinous betrayal of 1984 and that a dug in National wont be giving up points easy so Labour needs to take the initiative and hone its policy and pre-election stance through trial by fire rather than more party retreats.

In effect its fat camp, a makeover and a whole new wardrobe for Labour and the effects may have already started to show but I have heard and read several people slag the whole thing off as pointless and a waste of time.

There is some truth to the assertion that it’s too early yet to really see a change in Labour, so far its policy platforms/ideas are still just not hitting the nerve with the electorate but the party seems to be putting out more press releases about the state of affairs in NZ and linking the government to it and that’s a start.

The idea is less about scoring points against National, although a few would be nice, but rather get the party name back in the media and start positioning itself again as the true party of the opposition.

But here is where I would be earning my money if I was a party spin doctor. So far the prescriptions are standard and predictable (ie get the name out more, provide alternatives etc) but the real reason for getting out and about in the media is that it starves National of air and either forces it to burrow deeper into its bunker or come out and fight on core issues or risk having Labour take over the narrative.

And it’s here where a well-planned and prepared policy and media ambushes would work wonders. The current state of New Zealand is full of low hanging fruit just begging for a solution to the problem of the day. National has had eight years in power and it’s clear that nothing is getting better. It’s also clear that Labour has started to think like that and started to gear its message along those lines. But it’s not enough.

The race to November 2017 is not a short sprint and National has banked on the long haul, saving its shots for a John Key led media blitz in the actual campaigning phase. This makes sound sense if Labour wallows in apathy and can’t get out of its own funk as National just has to play it safe and compare itself to Labour to win the prize.

This won’t work if Little and Labour go and stay on the offensive from here until December 2017 but to make this work requires more than just a slew of media releases and trotting out the same old arguments (and MPs) as before.

The key factor in this is Labour shedding all its 1984 to 2016 baggage and emerging anew from the cocoon of policy it has woven itself into and to do this means that the party has to re-cross the Rubicon of sorts and return to ideological roots, albeit with a 21st century spin.

And to return to my original point it looks like Labour has started a charm offensive by running a range of media attacks on National but without the bigger ideological transformation National can continue to say that it’s just slogans because that’s all it will be.

Little does look to be getting some stones with his standing by his comments about hotel deals in Niue (although if you read through his statements you can see the lawyer in him inserting the escape clause at the end) and various senior MPs appearing in the media attacking this and that of govt policy.

It’s an encouraging start but it’s just a start and this race to November next year will require something special to keep the momentum going and to begin wresting back those wayward Labour voters and that is the monumental policy/ideology shift required to sustain the party for the long haul. In short a swift step away from the center and back to the Left.

It’s easy to see why the party has balked at this suggestion in the past but the 1984 to 2016 period has been poison to the party and ammunition for National every time Labour opens its mouth to point out how bad things are under the current government.

The vital point in this whole plan is to differentiate itself from National in every way shape and form, no more squabbling over the scraps of the middle voter demographic, which is now beginning to wither and die anyway under National Policy, but instead a return to easily identifiable core values which come pre-packed with a message and a meaning that is in opposition to everything National stands for.

And the messages have, for most part, avoided Key and gone for Nationals weakness, its bloody awful polices and record across the board with its stewardship of NZ which is key (no pun intended) to defeating National.

This is clever as if they dont fight Key head on, but make National wheel out its golden boy to defend on all and any issues it will take the shine off his royal behind between now and polling day and prep the ground for the whole new message that Labour should be unveiling in the next few months as there have been indications here and there and Labours new general secretary, Andrew Kirton, dropped some tantalising words in the Listener a while back which sounded like there were bigger plans afoot.

This strategy has some other benefits as its will not only starve National of air but it will also do the same to both the Greens and NZ First. If there is any chance of Labour/Winston coalition Labour will have to be the biggest dog in the yard come polling day, not after, and that only comes from being the big dog, picking fights and scrapping it out in public, the the media and not just the benches with all and any challengers.

It’s a risk, I admit, but the issues that bedevil Labour will remain, if not get worse, if they lose this election and by the time the 2020 election comes round could be way too late to salvage the party. It’s the same dilemma National face once John Key decouples from the party

So if Labour has its eyes set on getting the gold in November next year it’s going to have to take things to the next level. My concern is that just as it’s getting its mojo back the party will hold there and try and run a half-baked policy platform through the election and get beaten with predictable results.

 

Bernie the spoiler.

datePosted on 13:39, May 19th, 2016 by Pablo

Things are getting interesting on the Democratic side of the US presidential primaries. Although Hillary Clinton is on pace to win the nomination, Bernie Sanders continues to dog her steps with wins that keep him, if not within striking distance of securing the nomination himself, close enough in delegate count and popular support to narrow the gap between them to the point that she cannot claim a decisive mandate as the nominee. That is important because if the trend continues, and especially if he can stay close or win in California in early June, he can arrive at the convention armed with demands that will have to be met if he is to throw his support behind her in the general election. There is already talk of him running as an independent (which is what he was until he entered the Democratic primary). That would prove disastrous for the Clinton campaign and could turn the presidential race into a mirror image of two divided major parties having candidates from within their ranks running as spoilers against their convention nominees.

Let us be very clear on one thing: Bernie is right when he says that the Democratic nomination process is stacked against him. Between interest group super delegates whose loyalty is pledged to Clinton regardless of primary results to the closed primary process itself, there has been concerted effort by Democratic party bosses to keep his numbers down by denying independents the right to vote and counter-balancing the popular vote with super delegate selections. He has, quite frankly, been cheated on more than one occasion and that does not even take into account the more underhanded tactics used against him by the Democratic National Committee.

This spilled over recently in the Nevada Democratic convention, where a pro-Clinton state party chairperson overruled Sanders supporter’s motions and sat Clinton delegates rather than those pledged to Bernie. The convention descended into chaos and the chairperson, a woman, was inundated with vicious misogynistic physical threats mainly from the so-called “Bernie Bros,” presumably angry young men. Although Sanders issued a one line sentence condemning violence in a three paragraph statement about that convention, the bulk of it was dedicated to highlighting the underhanded moves made by the chairperson and her minions. He followed that with a victory speech after the Oregon primary (which he won handily) in which he remained defiant, belligerent and determined to take his campaign to the convention. He does not appear to be in the mood for reconciliation with Ms. Clinton.

Needless to say, Democratic Party leaders, Clinton supporters and many liberals are freaking out over this. They see Sanders as a sore loser given that he knew what he was getting into when he joined the party last year in order to run for the nomination. They see his candidacy as interfering with the streamlined selection process that was supposed to result in a unified consensus backing Clinton. More importantly, they see his intransigence and talk of a third party run as handing the keys to the Oval Office to Donald Trump, especially given that some Republican Party luminaries are lining up behind the Orange Crush as a matter of partisan duty regardless of what the consequences may be should he become president. In fact, however reluctantly, the Clinton haters within the GOP and their media surrogates appear to be coalescing behind Trump at the same time that the fractures within the Democratic Party are getting more pronounced. No wonder Democrats are freaking.

I am less concerned than my liberal US friends about this because I think that Sanders is playing his cards correctly. The reason is because I think that what he is playing is a variant of the “moderate-militant” strategy. A moderate-militant strategy is one where a militant objective is announced as a first negotiating point and pursued until an opposing actor makes moderate concessions to the militant. Rather than the militant goals, the real intent is to secure moderate gains. The militant starting point is just a negotiating ploy designed to force the opposing side to move towards it in the hope of securing an agreement.

In the Sanders version, the strategy is to run his campaign on “socialist” principles all the way to the convention. By playing hardball and not wavering before it, he forces the Clinton camp to accept the fact that without him they cannot win and with his supporters opposed they will certainly lose the general election. If Sanders arrives at the convention armed with a strong contingent of delegates in spite of all the manoeuvres against him, he can threaten to tell his supporters to either not vote or cast their ballots against her in the general election. In that case it is very likely that Clinton will concede on important issues and incorporate them into her policy platform before she is declared the nominee. This decision will be made easier by the GOP partisan consolidation around Trump, which brings closer to reality the heretofore unimaginable prospect of his presidency. Given her own negatives, she can no longer rely on loathing of Trump as a guarantee of a defensive vote turnout against him. She needs Bernie more than he needs her, and his playing tough all the way to the convention is a way of underscoring that point.

The worst thing that Sanders can do is concede or pull out of the race before the convention. Were he to do so he would lose any bargaining position he might have had at the convention because for the militant-moderate strategy to work it must be held steadfast until the other side makes a conciliatory move. Given their differences, including opposing views on whether to embrace corporate reform and accept special interest political financing among many other things (such as the US position on Israel-Palestine), it would be a waste of all the time, resources and effort he and his supporters have put into his campaign to abandon it before they have a chance to make their case at the common gathering. Instead, the best bet for his voice being heard strongly at the convention is to press on all the way to it, and then some.

Under no circumstances should Sanders accept Clinton’s assurances on key policy issues in return for his quitting the race and throwing his support to her. I would not trust the DNC and Clinton camp as far as I could throw them. Instead, he must make a condition of his support that the party write in the concessions to his policy demands into the presidential campaign platform adopted at the convention. It may not make for an airtight guarantee once she is elected but it will be much better than relying on her good faith that what was promised will be delivered come January 2017.

If the Clinton camp is smart they will realise that Sanders has brought something new into the party, which given the polarisation of the country and who they are running against, can be a key to their success in November. They must understand how he is playing the game and why he is doing so. They must understand that offering him a position in a Clinton administration is not what he is after and would not suffice to mollify his supporters in any event. They must study their positions in advance and see where they can concede readily and where negotiations on substantive issues will be harder. But what they must understand most is that the chances of a Clinton victory in November rest as much on gaining his support as they do on her own qualifications and experience.

If that is understood, the remaining primaries can be contested vigorously (if not honestly) with a mind towards clearly demonstrating the policy-based platforms of the Democratic candidates versus the empty rhetoric, simple-minded prescriptions and opportunistic bombast coming from the other side. Once that is done, the convention can become not only an arena of contestation between contending ideas about how to take the country forward, but also an opportunity to exchange concessions in order to present a unified front to the voting public. Therein lies the recipe for success in November.

“Culture wars” as election year bait trapping.

datePosted on 12:31, May 16th, 2016 by Pablo

One proven strategy for campaigns that have little substantive by the way of policy to offer and which are trailing in the polls is to drop any pretence of having a grounded policy platform and instead turn to populist demagoguery while casting slings and arrows at opponents. The most common is the “sky is falling” approach, whereby the social and political backdrop to the campaign is cast as one of doom and gloom, with armageddon-like results if the opposition wins. Those undertaking this strategy depict the struggle as a fight between good and evil, as a last chance to roll back the hounds of hell bent on devouring what is left of the good ole days and the traditional way of doing things. The key to the strategy is to divert public attention from core policy issues and towards incidental yet highly emotive areas of social exchange where purchase can be made of difference, uncertainty and fear.

In the current US election campaign, that is precisely what the GOP candidates, Donald Trump in particular, have been doing. They frame the contest as if the US was staring at the abyss as a result of the Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton as the lead horsewoman of the apocalypse. This is designed to tap into American’s deep sense of insecurity and pessimism even if the reality of the US condition suggests that many of these concerns–which are held mostly but not exclusively by conservatives–are both exaggerated and unfounded.

The GOP version of the sky is falling approach has twist in that it invokes so-called “culture wars.” The notion that the US is in the midst of “culture wars” started out as an anti-political correctness theme among conservative politicians and media commentators. It has now morphed into an all-encompassing attack on so-called progressive and “secular humanist” socio-economic reform and social changes that may or may not have been pushed by political actors. It is resurrected by the media and political Right every election year. For example, conservatives today rail against the outsourcing of US jobs done supposedly in order to curry favour with foreign trading partners even though in the past they have no issue with the dynamics of globalized production. And yet it is has been advances in robotic technologies rather than politicians that have displaced blue collar shop floor jobs in the US, and the US is not the only place where this has happened. For this crowd abortion is not an individual choice but state-sanctioned murder, and scientific research that uses fetal tissue is part of a vast death machine targeted mainly at (potential) white christians. The so-called “War on Christmas” is really an attack on Christianity and the Judeo-Christian foundations of the Republic. In this appeal, the siren call is that it is time to make a stand and confront the usurpers of the traditional faith, however illusory they may be.

The same folk have reacted viscerally to the Black Lives Matter movement, reviving some unhappy ghosts of the past in doing so, by seeing it as a group of self-entitled freeloaders, enablers, opportunists (yes, Al Sharpton is there), plus assorted and occasionally organised thugs who seek to divert responsibility from their collective lack of values as well as the actions of people of colour who have brought lethal police attention upon themselves (in spite of the compelling evidence of epidemic-level police shootings of unarmed black men). They see in Muslims an insidious fifth column bent on imposing Sharia law and usurping the American dream from within. They consider gay marriage as an assault on the sanctity of straight marriage (in a country with a divorce rate of over 50 percent of straight marriages) and the incorporation of openly gay members in the military as a sign of its deliberate weakening. They see universal health care as the imposition of “socialism” and yet another assault on individual freedom of choice. The see attempts at tighter gun control as the antecedent to federal imposition of martial law. The see feminism as the beginning of the end for the traditional family. They take refuge in xenophobia and bigotry as bulwarks against “progressivism” and the inevitable national decline that they believe that it entails.

And, to put it mildly, many of these people see the current US president as representative of all of these maladies. His upcoming trip to Hiroshima encapsulates the view: despite the White House issuing a public statement saying that the president will not apologise for the nuclear attack on the city and will lay a wreath to pay his respects for the innocent civilian dead, conservatives are using this as further evidence of his plan to destroy America while invoking Pearl Harbour as a reason his apology is treasonous (ignoring the fact that senior Japanese government officials have laid wreaths at the Pearl Harbor memorial in the past).

These commentators see progressive brainwashing everywhere, from the “liberal” (yet somehow corporate) media to every level of the educational system. They see indolence and disrespect amongst their youth and expressions of non-Caucasian ethnic pride as the divisive product of political correctness. They basically see the US going to hell in a hand basket.

The entire premise of the sky is falling/cultural wars strategy is defensive. It is designed to prey on people’s fears of losing what they have and their insecurities about keeping or improving on what they have in an uncertain future marked by rapid demographic and social change in an age of global flux. It makes a dark possibility seem like an imminent reality. It is a push-back reaction rather than a forward-looking progression. It plays, ultimately, on ignorance, and in the US there is plenty of ignorance to go around.

The resort to such a strategy would be laughable except for one thing: it works. It diverts people’s attention away from difficult matters of national policy and on to things that have deeply personal resonance and which touch on primitive instincts and desires. Its appeal is unthinking and visceral rather than cerebral and critical. The more raw and emotional the appeal, the more likely the target audience will react spasmodically to it. In doing so, those who invoke that response are able to counter the policy prescriptions of their opponents without really engaging with them.

That is why I am puzzled by the Obama’s decision to push legal action to facilitate transgender use of toilet facilities based on self-identity, not physical traits. Actually, it is not the legal recognition of transgender rights that bothers me but the timing of the push for them. Why could this not have waited until the next presidential term, especially since Hillary looks to win and even Trump is not opposed to the move?  Or is that why the initiative is being made now, as it can be seen as further dividing the GOP base from its presumptive presidential candidate?

If so, I think that it is an unnecessary and counterproductive ploy. By pushing for transgender rights at the particular time the White House has thrown a lifeline to the troglodyte Right, who in turn can pressure the GOP elite and Trump to wage war on such a cultural abomination. Already we hear the clamour about perverts lurking in little girl’s toilets, and The Donald’s penchant for flip flopping on issues is well known, so why on earth start up this particular culture war when a year from now passage of transgender rights legislation would have less electoral impact?

If I was a Democratic strategist I would urge the Party and its candidates to not be baited into culture war debates. That will only trap them in a no-win circular shouting match about science and daily practice grounded in “common” versus “good” sense based on different ideas about ethics and morality–but not intellectually honest or informed  people but with aggregations of the mental equivalent of Trump’s Mexican built Wall.

Instead, I would urge them to laugh at sky is falling arguments and refute them with the facts. The country is getting more colour in its demographic, has become more tolerant of non-traditional lifestyles, has robust religious diversity, has innovative production and entrepreneurship and remains, regardless of what the GOP doomsayers claim, economically strong and relatively secure in spite (rather than because) of its foreign military adventures. It may not be utopia or even the mythological house on the hill, but it sure ain’t a bloated carcass of decadence floating towards oblivion (unless you are referring to the GOP itself, in which case the analogy applies).

The Democrats should focus on what Gramsci referred to as “touching the essential,” that is, the real state of the economy and national affairs, addressing the real problems of average people in proper perspective (and there are plenty to consider), and offer practical (and practicable) solutions to specific policy issues. That will leave the GOP to bark into the wind about girly men, safe spaces and serial adulterers. Because when the dust has settled on November 8, the sky will still be there and the cultural wars of the Right will have been lost yet again.

Defensive voting and split tickets.

datePosted on 14:31, May 3rd, 2016 by Pablo

As part of the ongoing effort to clarify some aspects of the US elections this year, this post focuses on two tactics: defensive voting and ticket splitting. Some readers may already be familiar with both concepts, but for those who are not, here is brief outline of what they involve.

Defensive Voting.

Defensive voting is the act of voting against someone by casting a ballot for their opponent not out of loyalty or agreement with the position of the opponent, but out of fear of the possibility of the disliked candidate winning. This may be due to a number of reasons but is usually based on a lesser evil approach: In order to prevent a greater evil from occurring in the form of a detestable candidate being elected, voters choose whatever alternative candidate is available who stands a chance of preventing the “bad guy” from prevailing. The idea is simply to prevent an unpalatable candidate from electoral victory even if the alternative is not entirely palatable either. There may be variations on this approach, such as voting for a clearly marginal candidate in order to help sideline a legitimate opponent, but the basic premise for such tactical voting is prevention, blocking or denial, not support, affirmation or promotion.

This is another reason why the US presidential race is so interesting. Polls show that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the most detested front-running candidates in US presidential history. Ted Cruz is equally loathed across the political spectrum. That means that more than the vote of their supporters, what will decide the outcome in November is who has the largest defensive voter turnout against them. A micro version of this scenario will play out at both major party conventions, since the “anyone but Trump” Republican factions and the Bernie Sanders supporters in the Democratic Party will, at least initially, vote against the front runners as much because of their dislike of them as out of support for their own candidates.

Depending on what happens at the conventions, in November it is entirely possible that some if not many Republican voters will vote for Clinton (should she win the nomination) or an independent candidate rather than Trump. Likewise, Sander’s supporters, if he does not win the nomination and receives no policy concessions in the Clinton platform, could well turn to a third party candidate such as that of the US Green Party. That could seriously tighten the race and perhaps even lead to a Trump victory, which from the standpoint of many progressives would simply help sharpen the contradictions in the US political system and lay the foundations for more significant change down the road (I refuse to use the term “revolutionary” because unlike Sanders and his supporters I have a full understanding of what social revolutions entail, and that does not include participating in deeply institutionalised electoral processes).

If the presidential race comes down to Clinton versus Trump or Cruz, then the deciding factor will be who has the most votes cast against them rather than for them. Given the intensity of negative feelings towards all of this motley crew, it could lead to a record turnout on both sides of the political divide and give previously non-committed Independent voters, particularly those who were not able to vote in closed primaries, a decisive role in the election.

Ticket splitting.

Those familiar with MMP understand this concept well. The  “split ticks” versus “two ticks” phenomenon is simple to grasp: you can either vote for a party and a candidate from that party in a general election (giving “two ticks” to the party vote and that party’s candidate from your electoral district), or you can split your party vote from your member vote (say, by voting for Labour in the party vote and a Green candidate in the member vote).

This type of voting is unusual in the US. Political parties tend to discourage so-called vote splitting because in most elections whole slates are presented as a ticket by the party to voters, for offices ranging from president to the local dog catcher. Even though voters, in practice, do split their votes among national, state and local offices, at the national level the US electoral system largely operates in binary, either/or fashion. That makes it a rare day when parties urge their supporters to split their national-level votes.

This year that day has come. Some in the GOP leadership are floating the idea that, should Trump win the party nomination, people should split their votes in the presidential race from their votes “down ticket,” that is, for other elective offices. The GOP has very real reason to be concerned that a Trump defeat could trickle down through the Senate, House of Representatives, Governorships and even important mayoral races. With that in mind, they are asking their supporters to vote Republican down ticket even if they do not vote for Trump (and in fact many in the GOP are urging voters to vote for anyone but Trump). As mentioned in my previous post, a shift in six Senate seats restores a Democratic majority to it. In the House the shift will have to be much larger but even one that decreases the Republican majority close to or below the 2/3 mark needed for passage of legislation can be devastating for GOP prospects during the next congressional term. With several prominent Republican politicians tainted by their endorsement of Trump (such as New Jersey governor Chris Christie), the chances of his dragging the entire party down with him are considered to be very possible. Thus the open calls for vote splitting on the part of some in the Republican leadership.

On the Democratic side there is less interest in vote splitting although Sander’s supporters are urging him to run as an independent if he loses the Democratic nomination for president. Should he do so, then his supporters will engage in vote splitting as well, voting for him rather than Clinton but voting for Democratic candidates down ticket. That will be what tightens the presidential race, as barring unforeseen circumstances Sanders can only act as a spoiler in the campaign for the White House. This is the most likely reason why the Clinton camp will be inclined to offer him significant policy concessions at the convention, which not only will mollify his supporters but also could help increase their defensive vote against Trump.

The Outlook.

Of course, in no small part because she is a female in a country that still has issues when it comes to gender and higher office, Clinton may have more defensive votes cast against her than those cast against Trump or Cruz. In that case the stage will be set for the mother of all federal government meltdowns once either Republican candidate assumes office, since whoever it is will very possibly be fighting Congressional Republicans as well as the Democrats from his perch in the Oval Office, to say nothing of many state an local authorities. But given those who have been scapegoated by Trump and Cruz’s neo-medieval social outlook, framed against the demographics of the country, the more likely scenario is that defensive minded voters turn out in droves, many of them splitting their tickets on the conservative side,  and Clinton rides to victory, perhaps in a landslide.

In the meantime, let’s get back to our popcorn and beverages and watch the circus/trainwreaks primaries continue to unfold.

Some details about the US election campaign.

datePosted on 14:45, April 22nd, 2016 by Pablo

Coverage of the US election in NZ is pretty bad. The local media pundits are shallow at best and take their lead from US cable news services. The best analyses are either reprints or canned footage from US media outlets or in local political blogs (save the rabid frothing on certain reactionary outlets).

Since I get to vote in the elections I follow them pretty closely. Also, having been  based in the US for the twenty years prior to my arrival in NZ, I have practical experience with them, to including voting in 6 states. Because the coverage in NZ is sketchy on certain key details and because it follows the crude narrative of the Yank media, I figured I would offer a short primer on some key details leading up to the Republican and Democratic conventions in a few months.

Open versus closed primaries. 

Primary elections are held in all 50 states and US territories during presidential election years in order to award delegates to candidates pursuing the presidential nomination of their respective parties. The amount of delegates is based upon the number of registered members of a party in a given state, divided among the number of congressional districts in that state. In some states the awarding of delegates is a winner take all affair, while in others it is proportional to the number of votes each candidate receives out of the total number of people voting in a party’s’ primary. In some states there are caucuses instead of primaries, which are more consultative and informal than elections and offer greater leeway in delegate selection and commitment to candidates. Of course, like so much else in US elections, there is a fair bit of gerrymandering and dubious exchanges involved in delegate apportionment, but the general principle is as outlined.

In “closed” primaries only registered supporters of a given party may vote in that party’s primary. That forces voters to declare a preference in advance of the primary. The time frame for registering a party preference in order to be eligible to vote varies from state to state. For example, in Florida, where I am registered to vote, a person must register at least 60 days before the primary election. In New York the registration deadline is six months before the primary election date.

In closed primaries independent voters must either declare a party preference by the official registration deadline or else they are excluded from voting in the primary. This is important because the majority (40 percent) of US voters declare themselves to be Independents (the Democrats and GOP get around 29 percent and 27 percent of all registered voters). The motive for holding closed primaries is twofold: to suppress the vote in order to eliminate uncertainties on election day (since most independents either do not or cannot vote in party primaries); and to thereby allow the most committed party supporters to determine who the winning candidate will be. Although much attention has been directed at Trump and Sander’s complaints about the delegate selection process and inability of independents to vote, respectively, the hard fact is that both the Democratic Party and GOP try to control the primary voting process via closed elections in most states. The Democratic and Republican National Committees co-ordinate (some would say conspire) with state and local party officials to add just enough opaqueness to the process so that electoral uncertainty is limited while the appearance of free and fair elections is maintained.

In “open” primaries voters do not have to register prior to the election date. They can simply declare a party preference on election day or shortly before the election, the walk into the voting station with the voting papers of the party they have chosen. The only requirement for voting is that they show proof of residence in a given state. This allows independent voters to often have a decisive impact on the outcome and leads to greater amounts of strategic voting. For instance, when I lived in Virginia and later in Arizona, which were open primary states during the times I lived there, I would often vote in the Republican primary in order to vote for the most troglodyte candidate on the ballot. My hope was that in doing so I would help said candidate win the nomination because he (it was always a he) was unelectable in the general election. Unfortunately that did not always happen, but you get the general idea.

“Open” primaries are often a better indication of general election outcomes because they are less dominated by internal party logics and less “controllable” by party bosses. Conversely, “closed” primaries tend to reflect better the desires of committed party voters, something that may or may not be translatable into general election victories.

Another important thing to remember is not so much the percentages of the vote won by each candidate but the total number of votes registered for each party in a given primary. For example, in the recent “closed” New York primary the total GOP vote was around 800,000 whereas the Democratic vote was close to 1.8 million (that is, more than double the Republican vote). In conservative rural states such as those of the Midwest and South (the so-called red states), the numbers for each party are reversed (and much lower in aggregate). So a candidate winning by huge margins in party primaries that have significantly fewer voters than the opposition is no sure bet to go on and win a general election.

It is useful to keep this statistic in mind when projecting out to the general election. For example, it does not matter if Trump wins 80 percent of the GOP vote in a primary in which the GOP receives less than half of the total number of votes than that received by the Democratic Party candidates because come general election day his numbers will have to bolstered by a huge amount of independent votes (who are allowed to vote in general elections for whomever they prefer). Since most Independents tend to vote Democratic in general elections, that means that not only will he have to have a historic turn out by Republican voters in his favour (again, at just 27 percent of the general electorate), but he will also have to overcome a deeply rooted historic Independent voting trend if he is to win. That is a big ask.

Brokered or Contested Conventions.

Most national party conventions in US presidential election years are more a coronation than a nomination. Usually the preferred candidate has the winning threshold of delegate numbers pretty much in hand by May or early June, so the conventions (which are always held in July or early August in order to be able to dedicate at least three months to the national campaign) are mere formalities that have become increasingly garish and circus-like in recent years. Long on style and short on substance, these uncontested conventions are designed to show party unity and promote patriotic appeal in the eyes of uncommitted voters.

“Brokered” or “contested” conventions are a whole other kettle of fish. In these type of conventions no candidate has the winning number of delegates on the day the convention opens. That leads to a series of ballots amongst delegates until one candidate emerges with a 50 percent plus one vote majority. The first ballot is a so-called “loyalty” ballot in which delegates vote for whom they are pledged to (the saying is that you vote for the person who brought you to the big dance). Since the first ballot only serves to confirm the lack of a delegate majority by any candidate, then a subsequent round of balloting occurs until a majority candidate is decided upon. That is where things get interesting because after the first loyalty ballot delegates are released from their pledges and can support whomever they think has the best chance of winning the general election (or at least presumably that is the logic at play. It is entirely possible that some delegates may play to lose by selecting an unelectable presidential candidate in order to eliminate him or her from party politics after the defeat).

Balloting continues until a candidate is selected. That not only brings intra-party conflicts out into the open. It also is where the backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms, the backstabbing, horse trading and sausage-making all come into play. It is an ugly process that often leads the winning candidate battered and bruised rather than sanctified, which in turns leads to a weakened position heading into the general election–something the opposing party candidate will pounce on.

If I recall correctly, the last brokered convention was in 1979, when Ted Kennedy challenged sitting president Jimmy Carter at the Democratic convention. Carter won the party nomination, only to be trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election. As people noted at the time, if an incumbent president could be challenged at his own party convention, why should voters think that he was worth re-electing?

Brokered or contested elections are bad news for the parties in question. That is why both the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) are doing everything they can to derail the campaigns of the two “outsiders” in the race, Sanders and Trump. Remember that Bernie Sanders has never been a Democrat. From his days as mayor of Burlington, Vermont to his Senate career, he ran and served as an Independent until the time he entered the Democratic presidential nomination campaign. The DNC fears and loathes him, a sentiment made worse by the fact that he has derailed what was supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s inevitable and uncontested  march to the presidency. Now, the path to coronation is not so certain. Clinton needs to win 66 percent of the remaining delegates in order to secure the nomination. With states like California, Oregon, Maryland and Pennsylvania still in play, that task is not going to be easy. Even if she does win enough delegates to secure the nomination before the convention (and the selection of special interest group “super delegates” was designed to ensure that), she will have to make concessions to Sanders’ policy platform if she is to retain the support of his followers (who otherwise will not vote for her even if they fear a Trump or Cruz presidency). This complicates things for her as well as for her largest patrons, since Bernie has his sights firmly focused on Wall Street and other corporate lobbies like Big Phrama that have donated massively to her campaign. And if Clinton does not secure 66 percent of the remaining delegates, then a contested convention is in her future.

As for Trump, well, he is the fly in the RNC ointment. If he gets the necessary amount of delegates by the time of the convention, then the GOP will be forced by their own rules to award him the nomination. If that happens there is some talk of the GOP running an “independent” candidate against him so as to distance their brand from his name in an election that they expect to lose.

If Trump does not secure the necessary number of delegates before the convention, then a brokered convention is likely. The RNC both fears and wants that to happen. Fears, because it most likely will lead to defeat in November. Wants, because it could be the only way to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. If the convention is brokered or contested it is probable that Trump will be denied the nomination in favour of a “compromise” candidate even if he has the most delegate votes in the first round of balloting.  If so, it is likely that he will not go quietly and may mount his own “independent” campaign. Either way, the GOP is doomed in the general election because whoever runs an independent campaign on the Right will divide conservative voters and forfeit the chance of success against Hillary (with or without Bernie’s supporters).

Trump displays his lack of political understanding when he rails about delegate selection and how the person who gets the most GOP votes nation-wide should win the nomination. He fails to understand that, as with the Electoral College and the Senate, delegate selection is specifically designed to put the brakes on demagogic or populist appeals and mass influence over party politics. Moreover, he claims that even if he comes up short (say, by a hundred or less delegates out of the 1237 needed to win the nomination), as the leader in pledged delegates entering the convention he should be given the nomination much in the way a conceded putt is given in golf.

In doing so  he evidences exactly the disdain for institutional rules and procedures that the party elite is most concerned about. His rhetoric has already trashed many GOP sacred cows, so his push to circumvent or change its convention rules is seen as a major step towards the party’s demise (at least in its present form). Add to that his ignorance of even the most elementary notions of separation of powers and Executive Authority, and you have a GOP disaster-in-chief in the making. Heck, Trump as president (or Cruz for that matter) could well make Dubya Bush look positively Churchillian in comparison. Hence the RNC desire to snuff him out, and the only way to do so short of assassination is to force a brokered convention or run an “independent” candidate against him even if it ensures a loss in November.

 Campaign Financing.

I will not get into the intricacies of US campaign financing laws save for a couple of items. Individual contributions to candidates are limited but contributions to so-called Political Action Committees (PACs and Super PACs) are not. Under US electoral law corporations and lobbying groups are considered to be the same as individuals (i.e. there is no ceiling on contributions to PACs). PACs have been created as a way to circumvent the limitations on contributions to candidates and often serve as thinly disguised fronts for individual campaigns. Most of the money used to buy advertising, pay campaign staff and conduct the street level, grassroots get-out-the-vote work is channeled through PACs.

However, there is a twist. Before the national conventions, the DNC and RNC are prohibited from donating money to the campaigns of individual presidential candidates. Conversely, individual candidates can fund raise for themselves but not for others. This is an important detail because much fund-raising done by candidates like Hillary Clinton is done to channel money to so-called “coattail” candidates, that is, people in her party running for non-presidential offices who can benefit from the trickle down effect of her star power. Remember that in a presidential election year it is not just the presidency that is at stake. The entire House of Representatives (elected every two years) and one third of the Senate (elected every six years) are up for grabs as well, as are host of state and local offices.  This year 34 Senate seats are being contested and a shift in six seats would restore a Democratic majority, something that is almost as important to a Democratic presidency as is the person who holds it.

Therein lies the rub. None of the candidates are legally allowed to hold coattail fund-raisers and neither of the party national committees can help fund their candidacies until the nomination is secured. The Sanders campaign has cried foul after Hillary mentioned that her fund-raising was designed not just for herself but for other candidates, but the DNC has dismissed her slip of the tongue as inconsequential. In any event the practical solution to campaign financing is to channel all funds through PACs, which can then be instructed to finance campaigns for political offices up and down the ballot.

This is where, again, Bernie and The Donald have problems. The DNC and RNC are clearly channeling PAC money away from them and towards their rivals. Their own fund-raising efforts are focused on themselves without coattail-inducing support. Bernie has raised millions in small donations from individuals and some (mostly union) money, but is virtually devoid of serious PAC support. Trump is self-funded and it is debatable as to whether the RNC will reverse itself and direct money towards him in the event he secures the GOP nomination. If it does not, even his millions may not be enough to counter a well-financed, PAC-driven Democratic campaign with coattail effect, or even an “independent” GOP campaign focused more on securing the non-presidential positions on the ballot rather than the presidency.

In summation, once you strip away the dog and pony show aspects of the US election campaign, what you get is a contest run by two major parties that are authoritarian and hierarchical at their core, where both attempt to control voting outcomes from above rather than below, and which use electoral frameworks, convention rules and circuitous campaign financing to achieve that end. In that regard, the prospects for victory in November clearly lay on the Democratic side, whereas the prospects for an open party rupture is patently evident in the GOP.

Let the circuses conventions begin!

 

A culture of tax evasion.

datePosted on 11:25, April 15th, 2016 by Pablo

I do not understand what the fuss is all about when it comes to John Key and the revelations in the so-called “Panama Papers.” So what if he and other Kiwi high rollers shield their incomes and assets from the IRD in assorted trusts, funds, investments and even shell companies? Isn’t it an axiom of capitalism that, as Donald Trump has openly stated, you try to avoid as much tax payment as possible? Forget all this nonsense about “paying one’s fair share of taxes.” Only rubes and idealists do that. Everyone else tries to minimise their tax exposure and the rich pricks just do so on a grander and more elaborate scale.

I say this because the entire NZ economy is riddled with tax avoidance. One of the things that struck me after I moved to NZ is the amount of cash transactions that are done with the explicit intention of avoiding tax. Almost every single tradesperson I have dealt with in the course of my time here has proposed a cash transaction that avoids GST, but more importantly, avoids traceable electronic or paper (cheque) financial transfers. And the offers of non-GST cash transactions are done without shame or concern; it is just part of doing business for many people and everyone knows it and acts accordingly based on their own circumstances.

If what I have seen in the small business trade and service sector is any indication, then it is reasonable to expect that such attitudes percolate upwards into larger corporate structures and repositories of wealth. Since these are too big to hide in a cash-only parallel market, the next best thing is to engage in tax evasion and income-hiding schemes whose complexity is based upon the ability of the tax authorities to uncover them. The move to off-shore trusts and the like is simply a matter of keeping one or two steps ahead of the law and three steps ahead of enforcement mechanisms. If those in government choose to structure the financial regulatory regime in such a way that it keeps the holders of wealth five to ten steps ahead of the tax authorities then, well, you get what you vote for.

The difference between the approach of NZ high and low rollers when it comes to tax evasion is in scale, not kind.

This is one reason why I believe that the Transparency International rankings that have NZ listed among the top three least corrupt nations on earth are rubbish.  Add to that the nepotism, cronyism, shoulder-tapping, sinecure swapping and insider trading of everything from personal and professional favours to board directorships to stock shares, and the picture of NZ is far less rosy and far more, let us say, “pragmatic.”  I am particularly critical of the TI indexes because not only are they mostly based on reputational analysis (mostly offered by those who stand to gain from gaming the system), but because I participated in a TI survey of NZ’s intelligence and defense forces and saw my scores (and those of some others) pretty much discarded in favour of higher scores offered by insiders that led to an overall TI assessment that NZ has the highest standard of professional integrity amongst the defense and intelligence services in the Asia-Pacific.

Even so, I am one of those who are a bit idealistic when it comes to taxes. I understand the concept of public goods and therefore comprehend the rationale behind taxation. In NZ I pay tax more readily at a higher rate than I did in the US because, among other things, I am not paying to support a huge war machine that in turn serves the interests of a taxpayer subsidised military-industrial complex. As a small business owner I feel the burden of taxation more heavily and immediately than the corporate moguls that run the nation’s largest firms and whose bottom lines rest on minimising two things: their tax liabilities and their labour force wage bills. Yet I try to believe that I am contributing my small bit towards maintaining a high standard of public education, health and welfare that will lead to future generations of productive and happy citizens (although my experience with NZ academia suggests seriously diminishing returns in that sector, and I have serious doubts that overall heath, education and welfare outcomes are on the rise rather than in decline as a result of nearly a decade of National government public policies).

In spite of these misgivings, I remain a residual idealist and want to believe that my contributions, when taken collectively with those of others, matter for the present and future well-being of NZ. But I do not expect others to share the same hopelessly naive view of how the systems works, and I therefore do not begrudge them trying to dodge the taxman as much as possible. Because in a country where market-reifying ideologies reign supreme in virtually every facet of life, only a fool like me would think that paying taxes is anything but state-imposed theft levied on the productive in order to buy the acquiescence of the parasitical. I know this to be true because National, ACT and certain elements in Labour tell me so, and who am I to argue with those who dominate our economic, political and social narrative?

Apologies in advance for the hyperbole but once I got on a roll it was impossible to stop.

 

I got bagged last week by some who knew me and read my post about Andrew Little and Labour as I appeared to them (and not all of them would fit into the mold of Left or Liberal) as a closet or crypto sympathizer for National and John Key and all they stand for.

This of course would be far from the truth, as on the political spectrum, I consider myself a fascist anarchist and in no way supportive of National. But as I said last week I am no fan of Labour but some took my last post as a clear vote for the Senor Key and Co. So to keep the karmic balance this post will peel away the blue on National corpse and see what lies underneath (I was planning to write about the security services in NZ but c’est la vie).

The difference between my analysis of Labour and National is that while my focus on Labour was on the failures of the party over the failures of individuals, National is the opposite it’s the failures of individuals that dominates the party and has done so for over a decade now.

To start John Key has been very successful as a politician, so successful in fact that it would be easier to call National the “John Key Party” than refer to them as National. But Keys success as Politician has come at a cost, to both himself and the John Key Party.

Firstly Keys success as politician does not translate well into actual leadership, legacy or being remembered as PM. The multitude of screw ups, gaffs, scandals, dodgy behavior, greedy and corrupt behavior by Keys minions is legion which shows that despite his high polling he has been unable to keep his employees from running amok when his eyes are not directly on them.

This is because that Key has his own version of the Fuhrerprinzip (leadership principle) in play here. He may not have started out as the dictator of National but as the success of the party rests entirely on his ongoing popularity it’s become his show and his show only and much like other dictators Key keeps those under him busy squabbling for power so that they don’t have time to unite against him or do too much damage.

Unfortunately political golems that comprise the party, such as the reptilian Judith Collins, failed Wagnerian/Faustian Jerry Brownlee and power hungry Steven Joyce, feature regularly in the press but rarely for good reasons.

Collins misdeeds are numerous and not even worth mentioning here except that it’s clear that Key brought her back into cabinet after the scandal of Dirty Politics and who she was dining with in China under the old adage of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’. The smiling assassin wants to see the blade coming and by keeping Collins on a short leash and continuing to utilize her attack dog qualities he keeps her occupied and not with no further time to plot his overthrow, as had been rumored.

Brownlee also has been a useful tool to Key as flak catcher for the growing disquiet around the Christchurch Rebuild (nepotism, shoddy work practices and questionable dealings) but Brownlee is really known for little but his escapades in the media where he tried to start a war with Finland, Flouted Civil Aviation Authority rules and has demonstrated that his mouth is not connected to his brain. Also his placement as Minister of Defense, while seeming important, is actually a demotion to a backwater government department as a way of keeping him busy and out of trouble (much in the same vein that Murray Mcully’s appointment to the Foreign Affairs kept him out of the way by keeping him out of the country as much as possible) with all those “important” meetings overseas.

Meanwhile Steven Joyce oversaw his Frankenstein creation of MBIE (among other misdeeds), cobbling together disparate ministries and sections of government into an unholy (and unworkable) creation, staffed at senior levels with barely competent DCEs and then jammed into a chicken coop of a building complete with opulent surrounds at taxpayer expense. It was a power grab pure and simple and much in the vein of the SS in Germany capturing police and security functions under the banner of “centralization” but it’s become a bloated sagging beast with a toxic work culture and extremely high union membership.

But it’s not only the senior ministers that have appeared in the media as creatures that you’d rather not sit next to on the bus. Arron Gilmore will be forever remembered as for his arrogant outburst regarding who he was in regards to his membership in the John Key Party and current troubles with Todd Barclay’s staff show that the newer members of the party won’t be lax when it comes to acting like they are to the manor born.

And these are just examples that I am pulling off the top of my head. There are so many more that it does seem at times that the New Zealand political press are running a concerted campaign to discredit the Senor Key Party by publishing only the bad news but the truth is that the behavior of the members of the party has long been grossly out of touch with expected standards of decency and behavior. The short lived political career of Pansy Wong springs to mind or the highly inappropriate behavior of Maurice Williamson in calling the police when a rich “friend” was in trouble for are just a few more that freely spring to mind.

But there is a method to my madness in cataloging these examples of nether-spawn here and it’s to place the popularity of Key in clear contrast to the Party (and its dismal inhabitants) he fronts.

Key is the Golden Boy, popular in the polls and able to appear in public during daylight hours. But the shadow he casts is long and dark and it’s in the darkness that things grow and thrive, things which cannot go into the light lest they die from exposure.

This is a tale of horror and dark deeds, of human sacrifice and blood, of a pact with demons, a deal with the devil.

Our tale begins in 1999, after nine years in government (and the last three at the behest of Winston Peters) Jenny Shipley (now being sued as a former director of Mainzeal) steered the party onto the rocks of Defeat and Helen Clark led Labour into power. Nationals performance in 1999 was dismal but was nothing to the beating it got in 2002 (20%; it’s lowest ever election result and a nadir even lower than anything achieved by Labour at the polls).

Then several strange things happened but to sum it up simply the party was taken over/bought out in aggressive coup by right-wing interests fronted by Don Brash and the Business Roundtable (Now known as the New Zealand Initiative in an attempt to re-brand its tarnished image). Bill English (possibly the last real link to National of the past times) was sacrificed publicly and painfully on the altar of political convenience and John Key entered the party (or if rumors are to be believed he was aggressively recruited due to his wealth and connections).

Weather Brash had sold his soul to get the leadership or was a patsy may never be known but it’s around this time that the remaining country elements of the party were being cleared out and put off to pasture (no pun intended). Dark words and incantations had been whispered and evil things summoned and now the life that flowed through the party was no human blood but a mix of money, religion and spin.

Shortly after Brash self-destructed in an orgy of greasy stories about his sex life and revelations from Nicky Hagar’s Hollow Men showed that the party was not only beholden to larger business interests but also rapidly becoming a vehicle for money and religion in ways that mirror the strange nexus of religion and power in US evangelicals. Stepping into the breach in 2006 at this time was John Key and the party’s fortunes mysteriously began to rise (to be fair Brash’s infamous Orewa speech had helped to raise the party’s fortunes but his own personal culpability was still poison to the party).

And rise they have but only in relation to Keys personal popularity and when he falls the party will fall with him.

By listing only some of the stains found on the scaly carcass of the party it’s clear that the John Key Party is not only wholly corrupt but incapable of behaving in any manner that requires honesty, decency or integrity and that without the magic of John Key National would have either self-destructed (ala Labour with endless power struggles and coup attempts) or faded into electoral irrelevance by now.

So what’s the plan in the post Key environment for the misanthropes of National? Which of the shambling horrors currently prowling the halls of the Beehive would the average Kiwi voter go for?

The first (and only) name that springs to my mind is Simon Powers. He was being groomed for the role by being chief whip and had the looks, and ability to speak without putting his foot in his mouth but Powers left after two terms (perhaps sensing the poison in the chalice being offered to him) for greener pastures (Run Simon, run!).

Other than that it’s difficult if not impossible to imagine anyone of the current crop of National MPs now sitting at the top level being able to either lead the party without its descending into a hellish power struggle or elicit any positive reaction in the polls to the grotesque suggestion that they may be likable or have any human feelings (or perhaps are even human). Further with the junior ranks either imploding due to swollen hubris or simply because so many National MPs (like Labour’s middle and bottom tiers) are just seat fillers, cautious drones taking their nice salary and doing little for their electorates, no voter in their right mind would be ticking their name on the ballot form either.

A clear example of this hideous electoral dislocation is Winston Peter’s astounding win in the Northland by-election. In what was supposed to be a safe National seat (until Mike Sabine was found to be under investigation by the Police for Assault in another instance of reprehensible behavior) Winston took his traveling medicine show out on the hustings and reaped the spoils of Nationals arrogance and terrible treatment of the electorate.

And if your still reading at this point you may be getting the picture. National is a party that is on life support and that life support is John Key. As soon as he leaves or no longer has the magic touch in the polls the party will be a shambling corpse, an undead husk full of nothing but vile waste and human maggots.

No one is going to vote for Judith Collins, Jerry Brownlee or any of the others grim specters as leader or as PM and the desperate reliance on dirty tricks and heavily manufactured (official and unofficial) spin has left the party desperately hyping and protecting its one and only political life line, John Key.

But zombie parties do not die, they have to be killed and the question is who will do the killing? Vernon Small pointed out in today’s media that John Keys current position in the wake of Panama Papers (the usual Key safe, clean and neat statements) is effectively “handing a cudgel” to the opposition. But who will swing it? Who has the strength?

The Greens and NZ First most certainly have the will but not the strength to really kill National. Labour has the strength but is unable to get its house in order and remains timidly cowering in the corner (in the tradition of many classic horror movies) paralyzed with fear while the beast runs amok among other victims.

Possibly in combination could these three, like some sort of political transforming robot, combine their powers to take out National but that is unlikely (an issue to be explored at a later date) and the odds that come November 2017 we will either see John Key lead his party into a fourth term or a Coalition Government with Labour, NZ First and the Greens in uneasy coexistence are high.

If National is defeated in 2017 then it’s the end of Key, he won’t hang around and will go off to reap the rewards promised by his backers way back in 2002. If National makes a fourth term then all bets are off and Key will rule as long as his popularity lasts.

And that is the final key (no pun intended) to the puzzle, his popularity. As Phil F pointed out in the comments to my last post (and is echoed by the folks over at Redline Blog), a large section of the New Zealand electorate has been docile and passive in the face of the Machiavellian antics of Key and Co.

Voter apathy in the wake of endless scandals by the National party and John Key means that where acts which would have people out in the streets or at least an uproar in other countries have been met with large doses of indifference and ignorance, which are fuel for the polling engine that drives Team Key. Part of the blame lies with the mainstream media but the other with the general public themselves (again fodder for future posts) and it’s rapidly becomes a chicken or egg argument in determining which causes which.

So to end what has again been a long post (I do apologize for the length) it’s worth summing things up. National is a dead party walking as soon as it no longer has John key to prop it up (be it in person or popularity); it’s filled with corrupt individuals and backed by larger business interest for said interests. Its policy is a mild brand of conservatism, watered down to enable it to hold the middle ground and engineered in-line with failed and discredited Neo-liberal principles.

This is a party fighting a holding action to enable those who currently benefit from 30 years of rapacious public policy to consolidate their gains and maintain their lifestyles. The fact that National is literally rotting away before the nations eyes and lead by a necromancer king has yet to generate the fear and loathing that it should in this climate of change shows that we are either under Keys spell or things will remain as they are until history does the job for us and removes the horror for us.

In times like this a heroine or hero is required, or the peoples will must be manifest, both of which have their dangers but it’s clear that the beehive is now more akin to Dracula’s castle looming over the peasant village below and at nights dark and monstrous shapes can be seen  in the windows.

Media Link: Brussels’ heart of darkness.

datePosted on 19:56, March 23rd, 2016 by Pablo

I wrote a short opinion piece in the Herald outlining some of my thoughts about the Brussels terrorist attacks. Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, there will be no end to them. Even if they overlap in the form of foreign fighters, those root causes primarily reside in the disaffection and alienation produced by socio-economic and cultural grievances at home rather than in the conflicts of the Middle East. The solution is to be proactive as well as reactive to the threat posed by domestic radicalisation, and that involves social reform as well as better human intelligence collection in the communities from which home-grown jihadists emerge.

Something Fundamentally Wrong.

datePosted on 14:36, March 18th, 2016 by Pablo

In last Monday’s press briefing, the Prime Minister took my name in vain. Responding to questions from a reporter I had talked to, he said that my concerns about the apparent illegality of undercover intelligence operations were “fundamentally wrong.” Instead, he said that although intelligence agencies could not break laws (tell that to Kim Dotcom), they might require “different laws.”

I beg to differ.

Before delving deeper, let’s address the PM’s remark about the need for “different laws” governing undercover intelligence operations. What does he mean by “different?” Is he proposing that there be one set of laws for regular citizens and another set of laws governing undercover intelligence work? How does that sit with the “equal rights under the law” premise that is at the heart of democratic jurisprudence? And if there is no provision for “different laws” governing undercover intelligence operations today, then what is there in extant law that makes otherwise illegal acts legal? How often and under what circumstances are these illegal-but-legal acts allowed and are they only allowed or legal under warrant? Something tells me that the answers to the last two questions are “frequently and routine” and “no” respectively.

The question about undercover intelligence operations was raised because during the course of conversations with a couple of reporters about the Intelligence Review in general, I pointed out that the most interesting items were buried at the back of the report. Reporters tend to read the executive summaries of official government documents but seldom have the time or inclination to read through 179 pages of dense prose and legal jargon.

But since I have the time and inclination, I did. Plus, in my former life as a US government official I actually helped draft such reports so know that the best way of reading them is from back to front. That way one can get to the meat of the report, often found in annexes, before wading through the fluff.

I should point out that my overall take on the report is this: given who was on the Review committee, the report was inevitably going to have a bias towards institutional continuity and incrementalism with regard to reforms. That is indeed what happened. The report reflects as much if not more of the spy agencies’ concerns than it does that of external parties or stakeholders like the civil society organisations and individuals that were consulted by the Committee. The result is bound to be disappointing to those who wanted a major overhaul of the intelligence community or wanted parts of it disbanded altogether, such as the Greens, but to my mind it is a small but acceptable step towards greater transparency and accountability in the NZ intelligence community and its main collection agencies, the GCSB and SIS.

Even so, there are several problematic areas in the report that are worth considering, and here I will focus on the undercover operations that the PM thinks I have interpreted so fundamentally wrong. Rather than present my views without context, here are (cut and pasted) the recommendations regarding undercover operations as listed in the Report:

163 Annex C: Full list of recommendations (abridged).

Cover for operations and employees

78.The legislation should explicitly provide for the Agencies to obtain, create and use any identification information necessary for the purpose of maintaining the secret nature of their authorised activities. This should include the ability to create cover for anyone authorised to undertake activity for the Agencies.

79. “Identity information” should include anything that could be used to establish identity – such as credit cards and shell companies in additional to traditional forms of identification (such as passports and driver licences).

80. The Agencies should also have the ability to obtain, create and use identification information necessary to keep the identity of their employees confidential.

81. The use of these powers should be covered by a tier 3 authorisation (policy statement) to ensure they are exercised only where necessary and proportionate.

82. There should be corresponding immunities from civil and criminal liability for reasonable acts done in good faith to create or maintain cover as part of an authorised operation or to keep the fact of a person’s employment with the NZSIS or GCSB secret.

Immunities.

83. These powers and immunities should be incorporated through general provisions in the legislation governing the Agencies, rather than by inserting specific exceptions in other legislation as is currently the case.

84. The same immunities should apply to both agencies, in line with our recommendations that the Agencies share functions and an authorisation regime.

85. Immunities should also apply to anyone required to assist the Agencies, such as telecommunications companies, or to human sources or agents acting at the Agencies’ request or direction.

86. The legislation should provide that no person should be subject to criminal liability for acts carried out in good faith and in a reasonable manner that are necessary to give effect to a tier 1 or tier 2 authorisation.

87. Employees of the Agencies should also have immunity from criminal liability for acts carried out in good faith, in a reasonable manner and in accordance with the purposes of the Act to obtain a tier 1 or tier 2 authorisation.

88. The immunities for employees of the Agencies should also extend to any relevant minor offences or infringements that may need to be committed in the course of investigations carried out under a tier 3 authorisation (such as breaches of road user rules).

89. Employees of the Agencies and any person acting at the request or direction of the Agencies should be protected from civil liability for acts or omissions in good faith in the pursuance or intended pursuance of the Agencies’ duties, functions or powers. This is the same protection as is provided to public sector employees under the State Sector Act 1988.

90. Where the GCSB or NZSIS is assisting another agency to perform its functions, any immunities that apply to the agency being assisted should also apply to the GCSB and/or NZSIS.

 

Readers can form their own conclusions about what these recommendations imply. But here are some thoughts. It appears that undercover operations conducted by the SIS (and to a lesser extent the GCSB) do not have specific legal cover as things currently stand. There are no provisions in the SIS or GCSB Acts that explicitly refer to a legal framework under which otherwise criminal acts undertaken by undercover intelligence agents may occur. That means, in effect, that until now undercover intelligence operations are essentially illegal except for the fact that they are conducted by agents of the State at its behest under exceptions to existing legislation (outside of the GCSB and SIS Acts or even the State Sector Act). But even then there is apparently nothing in the law that explicitly authorises undercover intelligence operations that otherwise would be criminal acts (say, burglary, forgery or credit fraud). Yet the recommendations speak directly to such acts so clearly they have been happening.

The problem is not just that SIS agents have no specific legal cover for what they do covertly, something that individually places them at considerable risk in the event that they are caught or detected. There also are no specific provisions on what they cannot do. Where is the line drawn as to what is permissible when acting as an undercover agent of the State. Murder? Arson? Extortion? Blackmail? Kidnapping? Credit card fraud? Money laundering? Burglary? Home invasions? Tail-gating? (I include this because recommendation 88 specifically mentions breaches of road user rules). If an agent is recklessly tail-gating a surveillance target and wrecks while doing so, killing or injuring passerby, is that agent immune from prosecution or liability because s/he was in the service of the State?

These questions are not frivolous. From my personal experience, I know that among other things covert or undercover agents are taught how to pick locks and conduct “traceless” break-ins and burglaries (they are even provided with the tools to do so). Cyber-hacking to install malware or to steal sensitive information is a stock in trade of signals intelligence agencies. Clandestine surveillance of all sorts is the bread and butter of most human intelligence agencies. The CIA has its own lethal drone program and paramilitary branch, as do several other spy agencies. The Mossad is, among many other things, a brutally efficient assassination machine. So where does one draw the line when it comes to otherwise criminal acts carried out by intelligence agents of the NZ state?

The recommendations repeatedly speak about acting in “good faith.” But how is “good faith” defined? The SIS agents who broke into activist Aziz Chowdry’s home in 1996 were probably acting in “good faith” when they committed what otherwise would be a crime, but how is it that stealing documents from activists is justified on national security grounds? Moreover, the person who caught the SIS agents in the act of breaking and entering, David Small, had his home raided, ostensibly to search for bomb-making materials, by the Police a week later, after making the initial complaint (he was able to record the SIS get away car’s registration plate number, which was traced back to an SIS front company). How was the raid on Dr. Small done in “good faith” and at whose behest? The government was eventually forced to settle with Mr. Chowdry for a six figure amount and, worse yet, forced to apologise to him for the break in (you can read a summary of the case here).

Dr. Small also received compensation for “unreasonable search.” If we accept that an apology implies recognition of wrong doing and that “unreasonable searches” may be part of the SIS repertoire, then how and where does “good faith” come into the picture? Add to that events such as SIS break-ins at Auckland University in the late 1990s (if I am not mistaken Jane Kelsey’s office was a target), and one gets the idea that the SIS engages in otherwise illegal acts not so much for national security reasons but because it simply can under a de facto “good faith” immunity clause. So the effect of the current recommendations would be to codify what is already informal usage and practice.

The issue of “good faith” extends beyond New Zealand’s borders. Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn is currently investigating whether the SIS was complicit in the CIA extraordinary rendition and black site program. For those unaware of these, the program involved kidnapping or detaining suspected Islamic extremists and “rendering” them to clandestine detention centres in a number of countries (Poland, Thailand and Egypt, among others). There they were subject to euphemistically labeled “enhanced” interrogation techniques (some of which are more properly classified as torture). Although some of those “rendered” by this program turned up in Guantanamo Bay or in prisons operated by US allies, many others have never been seen again. All of this was conducted off the books and outside of legal guarantees or protections for the detainees.

Assuming that Ms. Gwyn does find that in fact the SIS knew about or was complicit in the extraordinary rendition/black site program in contravention of NZ commitments to international conventions against torture and arbitrary detention, can the SIS turn around and claim that it was doing so in “good faith?” Is “good faith” nothing more than a get out of jail card for the intelligence services?

The bottom line is two-fold. First, undercover intelligence operations to date have been conducted under very porous and somewhat dubious legal cover that allows a multitude of operational sins to occur under what seems to be a wink and nod agreement with other agencies such as the police and Crown.

Secondly, the recommendations in the report about legal cover for undercover intelligence operations are very vague and broad, which allows the possibility for agents to go “rogue” so long as they can claim that they are acting in “good faith.” Neither is acceptable in a liberal democracy.

I agree that a comprehensive legal framework is needed governing the circumstances and permissible activities conducted during undercover intelligence operations. But this framework has to specify as much what is not permissible as what is, and has to ensure clear lines of responsibility as well as authorisation before and during the conduct of said operations. Otherwise we run the risk of allowing State-sanctioned criminal enterprise to masquerade as intelligence gathering.

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