Posts Tagged ‘open government’

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.

I was invited by the nice folk at to contribute a short essay related to sustainable economics from my perspective as a geopolitical and strategic analysis consultant. The essay wound up  making the connection between political risk and sustainable enterprise, and more importantly, the relationship between sustainable enterprise and democracy. You are welcome to view it here.

Confronting executive branch excess.

datePosted on 12:16, October 14th, 2015 by Pablo

Recent court victories by Jane Kelsey and Jon Stephenson have vindicated those who have long complained about the culture of excess that permeates the National government’s cabinet. Excess and abuse of authority preceded the current government but this one has taken the practice to art form. It has resulted in allegations of corruption and behaviour such as that outlined in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics, and it has compromised the integrity of the DPMC, GCSB, NZDF, Ombudsman and SIS in doing so. If it did not openly encourage, at a minimum it facilitated managerial excess in agencies “overseen” by a variety of ministerial portfolios. The combination of ministerial and managerial excess–executive excess, to re-coin the phrase–is malignant in a liberal democracy.

Apparently the courts, or perhaps better said, two High Court judges, have caught on to the problem. Although the reasoning of the judge that forced the Stephenson settlement has not been made public, the judge in the Kelsey versus Groser case made abundantly clear that the “unlawful” behaviour exhibited by Groser and his staff included the Office of the Ombudsman as well as abuse of process. Likewise, the settlement of the Stephenson case involved not only a payment but a retraction and statement of regret by the NZDF as an institution, rather than by the command officer who was the subject of the defamation lawsuit. That suggests that more than one individual and branch of government may have had a hand in slandering Mr. Stephenson. Yet no independent review of their actions has been done.

There are other instances where the independence and integrity of reviewing agencies have come into question. Think of the Police Complaints Authority and the skepticism with which its findings are held. Think of past findings (such as during the Zaoui case) by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. Think of the way Crown Law has behaved in several high profile politically charged cases. Although adjustments have been made to some oversight agencies like the IGSI and not all oversight agencies are uniformly compromised, there appears to be a necrosis spreading across the system of institutional checks and balances in Aotearoa.

Those who regularly submit Official Information Act (OIA) requests will already know that the process is routinely abused, especially but not exclusively by security services. Delays beyond the mandated time frame for response are common. Censoring of material prior to release is common. So is the Ombudsman’s practice of upholding decisions to withhold or censor material on broadly defined national security grounds. Cynics might say that is a case of one hand washing the other. Others might go further and say that the problem is systemic rather than random and occasional. However skepticism is voiced, there is a sense that when it comes to the Ombudsman and other oversight agencies, they are more about whitewashing than honest scrutiny.

This again raises the issue of politically neutral, independent and transparent oversight. I have written a fair bit on the need for independent oversight of intelligence agencies above and beyond the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Commissioner of Warrants and current Select Committee on Intelligence and Security. I have not written about the problems with the Office of the Ombudsman and treatment of OIAs. But it should be clear by now that when it comes to democratic oversight of executive departments and those that lead them, New Zealand is hollow at its core.

Readers may recall that I have written about horizontal and vertical accountability in the democratic state. This academic concept finds real meaning in this case. Beyond the problem of vertical accountability in a country where electoral preferences are the subject of poll-driven media manipulation by government PR agents, elite cronyism is the norm and where civil society organisations are weak in the face of that, there is a serious lack of horizontal accountability in New Zealand. Agencies such as the Ombudsman that are entrusted with overseeing the behaviour of politicians and senior state managers  are seemingly subordinate (or at least submissive) to them. With some notable exceptions, when it comes to executive excess even the courts appear to have become as much instruments as they are arbiters of government policy and behaviour.

The first question that has to be asked is when does ministerial skirting or manipulation of the rules rise to the level of criminal offence? Is the complicity of more than one government entity (say, MFAT and the Ombudsman) in circumventing or obstructing OIA requests a trigger for a criminal investigation?  If not, what is? If so, who prosecutes the offence given current institutional arrangements?

There are a number of reviews and investigations of government agencies already underway. There are Royal Commissions on matters of policy. Private prosecutions are possible. Constitutional experts may know the answer, but I wonder if there also is an overarching investigatory body or process with legal authority that can look into the system of institutional (horizontal)  accountability and oversight mechanisms currently operative in the country. I ask because from where I sit the system looks broken.

So much for intelligence community reform.

datePosted on 18:36, February 17th, 2015 by Pablo

It turns out that nearly 5 months after getting re-elected, the government has decided on the composition of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). Besides himself as Chair of the ISC, the Prime Minister gets to select two members from the government parties and the Opposition Leader gets to select one member from opposition parties.  In both cases the respective Leaders are expected under Section 7 (1) (c,d) of the 1996 Intelligence and Security Committee Act to consult with the other parties on their side of the aisle before selecting the remaining members of the committee. The language of the Act is quite specific: “c) 2 members of the House of Representatives nominated for the purpose by the Prime Minister following consultation with the leader of each party in Government: (d) 1 member of the House of Representatives nominated for the purpose by the Leader of the Opposition, with the agreement of the Prime Minister, following consultation with the leader of each party that is not in Government or in coalition with a Government party.” (1996 ISCA, pp. 6-7).

Not surprisingly the government has nominated two National MPs, Attorney General Chris Finlayson and Justice Minister Amy Adams, for membership on the ISC. It is not clear if ACT, the Maori Party and United Future were consulted before their selection. What is more surprising is that Andrew Little nominated David Shearer and did not consult with opposition parties before making his selection. While Shearer is a person with considerable international experience and has been a consumer of intelligence (as opposed to a practitioner) during his career, Mr. Little has been neither. In fact, it can be argued that Mr. Little has the least experience of all the proposed members when it comes to issues of intelligence and security, which means that he will have to lean very heavily on Mr. Shearer if he is not not be overmatched within the ISC.

Moreover, in past years Russell Norman, Peter Dunne and Winston Peters have been on the ISC, so the move to re-centralise parliamentary oversight in the two major parties represents a regression away from the democratisation of representation in that oversight role. Since these two parties have been in government during some of the more egregious acts of recent intelligence agency misbehaviour (for example, the Zaoui case, where intelligence was manipulated by the SIS to build a case against him at the behest of or in collusion with the 5th Labour government, and the case of the illegal surveillance of Kim Dotcom and his associates by the GCSB in collusion or at the behest of the US government under National, to say nothing of the ongoing data mining obtained via mass electronic trawling under both governments), this does not portend well for the upcoming review of the New Zealand intelligence community that this ISC is charged with undertaking.

The Greens have expressed their disgust at being excluded and have, righty in my opinion, pointed out that they are the only past members of the ISC that have taken a critical look at the way intelligence is obtained, analysed and used in New Zealand. But that appears to be exactly why they were excluded. According to John Key,  Labour’s decision was “the right call” and he “totally supports it.” More tellingly, Mr. Key said the following: “A range of opposition voices from the minor parties could railroad the process. I don’t think the committee was terribly constructive over the last few years, I think it was used less as a way of constructing the right outcomes for legislation, and more as a sort of political battleground” (my emphasis added).

In other words, Russell Norman took his membership on the ISC seriously and did not just follow along and play ball when it came to expanding state powers of search and surveillance under the Search and Surveillance Act of 2012 and GCSB Act of 2014.

That is a very big concern. Mr. Key believes that the “right” outcomes (which have had the effect of expanding state espionage powers while limiting its accountability or the institutional checks imposed on it) need to be produced by the ISC when it comes to the legal framework governing the intelligence community. Those who would oppose such outcomes are not suitable for membership, a view with which Andrew Little seems to agree.

This is so profoundly an undemocratic view on how intelligence oversight should work that I am at a loss for words to  explain how it could come from the mouth of a Prime Minister in a liberal democracy and be tacitly seconded by the Leader of the Opposition–unless they have genuine contempt for democracy. That is a trait that W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard shared as well, but what does that say about the state of New Zealand democracy?

Mr. Little has given his reason to exclude Metiria Turei of the Greens from ISC membership as being due to the fact the Mr. Norman is stepping down in May and Mr. Little wanted “skills, understanding and experience” in that ISC position. Besides insulting Ms. Turei (who has been in parliament for a fair while and co-Leader of the Greens for 5 years), he also gave the flick to Mr. Peters, presumably because that old dog does not heel too well. As for Mr. Dunne, well, loose lips have sunk his ship when it comes to such matters.

The bottom line is that Mr. Little supports Mr. Key’s undemocratic approach to intelligence oversight. Worse yet, it is these two men who will lead the review of the NZ intelligence community and propose reform to it, presumably in light of the debacles of the last few years and the eventual revelations about NZ espionage derived from the Snowden files.

As I said last year in the built-up to the vote on the GCSB Amendment Act,  I doubted very much that for all its rhetorical calls for an honest and thorough review process that led to significant reform, Labour would in fact do very little to change the system as given because when it is in government it pretty much acts very similar to National when it comes to intelligence and security. If anything, the differences between the two parties in this field are more stylistic than substantive.

What I could not have foreseen was that Labour would drop all pretence of bringing a critical mindset to the review and instead join National in a move to limit the amount of internal debate allowable within the ISC at a time when it finally had an important task to undertake (in the form of the intelligence community review).

As a result, no matter how many public submissions are made, or how many experts, interest groups and laypeople appear before the ISC hearings, and how much media coverage is given to them, I fear that the end result will be more of the same: some cosmetic changes along the margins, some organisational shuffles and regroupings in the name of streamlining information flows, reducing waste and eliminating duplication of functions in order to promote bureaucratic efficiency, and very little in the way of real change in the NZ intelligence community, especially in the areas of oversight and accountability.

From now on it is all about going through the motions and giving the appearance of undertaking a serious review within the ISC. For lack of a better word, let’s call this the PRISM approach to intelligence community reform.

LINK: The Intelligence and Security Committee Act 1996.

Not that readers of KP will need much convincing, but Selwyn Manning has written a decisive essay on why the PM is lying about his involvement in the Slater/SIS/OIA fiasco. To do so he uses the State Services Commission’s guidelines for the release of sensitive information. The question now is twofold: 1) should NZ trust an individual as PM who overtly involves himself in political dirty tricks such as those uncovered by Nicky Hager? 2) should NZ trust a PM who repeatedly bald faced lies to the public on matters of considerable import?

As the saying goes, we may be stupid but we are not idiots.

Anyway, read the proof for yourself.

Why Throw in the Towel?

datePosted on 16:23, August 20th, 2014 by Pablo

In the wake of Nicky Hager’s latest revelations, Chris Trotter has penned a cynical defense of dirty politics as being the norm. For Chris, when it comes to politics “(t)he options are not fair means or foul: they are foul means or fouler.”

Idiot Savant at No Right Turn categorically rejects this view. I agree with him and can only add that either Chris has lost his ideological bearings or has consciously decided to join the Dark Side.

The Standard reprinted the NRT post and I commented on it there. Here is what I wrote:

The stability of democracy is based on mutual contingent consent, not only between capitalists and workers but between opposing political factions. Mutual contingent consent requires that all actors accept mutual second best outcomes (that is, no one gets their preferred outcome all of the time), something that is evident, for example, in compromises over wages and employment conditions at the bargaining table or in the lobbying of political parties over legislation. “Winning” is therefore temporary and tempered by the pursuit of self-limiting strategies in pursuit of the mutual second best. Otherwise the political game descends into zero-sum self-interested maximisation of collective opportunities. That is not democracy, even if there are those within the democratic system who adhere to such views.

This is why Chris is wrong. He mistakes the venal pursuits of a political few for the general substance of democracy as a political form. The pursuit of dirty politics represents a fundamental corrosion of democratic principle and practice. It reflects a fundamental contempt for the foundational tenets of this type of governance. That this contempt is channeled into underhanded tactics by some does not undermine the core values upon which democracy rests and in fact serves to underscore what democracy is not. That the resort to dirty politics in NZ has at its core a group of people with pathological tendencies and profoundly disagreeable personalities is further proof that their style of play is not politics as usual.

Chris may be a bit jaded by years of fighting the good fight in losing wars. He seems to given up all hope that politics can be played cleanly. But he and many others (including some on the Right) would not have fought, and continue to fight, if they did not think that there was a better way to do things in pursuit of a just society. Mr. Slater, Mr. Ede, Mr. Bhatnagar, Ms. Odgers, Judith Collins and John Key clearly do not, but that does not mean that democracy as a whole is reducible to their contemptible view of politics.”

Let us be crystal clear. There is no moral equivalence between what the Left does or may wish to do versus what the organised dirty tricks cell centred around Cameron Slater does. Moreover, what Slater and company do centrally underpins not just how National engages politics, but how ACT has done as well. In contrast, Left activist groups may sputter about “direct action,” hold demonstrations and on occasion undertake animal liberations or environmental defense by climbing into trees or blocking trains, but they do not systematically attempt to uncover dirty laundry in order to smear, blackmail or undermine opponents within and outside their partisan ranks. They do not take covert money in order to cut and paste ghost written attack columns supplied by others. They do not get favoured backdoor access to sensitive government documents based upon their partisan, when not ministerial, connections. Perhaps that is why they are less effectual than those on the Dark Side.

The institutional Left centred in the Labour Party may gossip about their rivals across the aisle and backstab each other in factional disputes, but even then there are limits to where they will go in the pursuit of “winning.” The Slater-led dirty tricksters have no such limits.

Whatever his motivations, Chris needs to reconsider his position. There still is room for the good fight to be fought fairly even if the opponent does not. Contrary to what John Key believes, that applies as much to politics as it does to sports.

Another National double standard.

datePosted on 15:16, May 1st, 2014 by Pablo

Maurice Williamson is forced to resign as Minister because he made a phone call to the police asking them to be undertake a thorough review and be “on solid ground” when investigating a domestic violence incident involving a wealthy Chinese friend of his who invested a lot of money in New Zealand (the same Chinese fellow granted citizenship over the objections of immigration authorities, and who donated more than NZ$ 20 thousand to National in 2012).

Judith Collins retains her ministerial portfolios in spite of revelations that she interceded with Chinese officials on behalf of her husband’s export company while on an official visit to China that had nothing to do with exports or trade.

What is similar and what is different about the two cases? They are similar in that they both involve Chinese nationals with economic ties to the National party or entities linked to it. They are similar in that the ministerial interventions were in violation of the cabinet manual regarding conflicts of interest. They also represent obvious forms of political influence peddling.

How are they different? Collins is a a key player on National’s front bench, whereas Williamson is on the outers with National’s heavy hitters. Thus he is expendable while she is not.

Comparatively speaking, Williamson’s crime was arguably less than that of Collins. He made a call on behalf of a constituent urging Police diligence when investigating the charges against his friend, then left the matter at that. The fact that rather than tell the minister to buzz off the cops bent over backwards to satisfy him that they were on “solid ground” before prosecuting is a police issue, not a Williamson issue (the Police decided to prosecute in any event, with Mr. Liu eventually pleading guilty to two charges of domestic violence).

Collins used taxpayer funded official travel to take time out of her official schedule to divert and meet with Chinese business associates of her husband over dinner in the presence of an unnamed Chinese government official at a time when her husband’s business interests in China were being hindered by official reviews of New Zealand based export contracts. Although she had no real business being there, she brought an aide with her, adding to the impression that her presence at that dinner had the stamp of official approval.

Of the two, which is more obviously a conflict of interest and which has the clear stench of corruption wafting over it? Of the two, which one would be viewed more dimly by the likes of Transparency International (the anti-corruption agency that habitually lists NZ amongst the least corrupt countries to do business in)?

Hypocrisy much in the handling of the two cases by the Prime Minister? You be the judge, by I think that there is.


datePosted on 13:54, May 15th, 2013 by Pablo

Although I always knew that “hope and change” was a rhetorical chimera rather than a realizable objective, and understand full well that the US presidency is a strait jacket on the ambitions of those who occupy its office, I am one of those who have been disappointed by the Obama administration on several counts.

I fully understand that he inherited a mess and has done well to dig out from under it, particularly with regard to revitalizing the economy and disengaging from two unpopular wars. With some caveats, I support the drone campaign against al-Qaeda. I support his health care reforms, his support for gay marriage and his efforts to promote renewable energy. I support his measured endorsement of the Arab Spring coupled with his cautious approach to intervention in Libya and Syria, where he has used multilateral mechanisms to justify and undertake armed intervention against despotic regimes (US intervention being mostly covert, with the difference that in Libya there was a no-fly zone enforced by NATO whereas in Syria there is not thanks to Russian opposition).

But I am disappointed in other ways. The failure to close the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Marine and Naval base, and the failure to put those detained there on trial in US federal courts because of local political opposition, are foremost amongst them. Now, more egregious problems have surfaced.

It turns out that after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012,  the administration removed from its “talking points” for press briefings and interviews the facts that the attack was conducted by al-Qaeda affiliates (and were not a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic on-line video, as was claimed), that repeated requests for security reinforcement at the consulate before the attacks were denied in spite of warnings about imminent threats, and then military assets were withheld during the incident (which lasted eight hours).

The public deception was out of proportion to the overall impact of the attack. Whether or not al-Qaeda affiliates conducted it, serious questions about the lack of security were bound to be raised. The White House appears to have panicked under campaign pressure about the significance of the date of the attack and who was attacking (a purely symbolic matter), compounding the real issue of State Department responsibility for the security failures involved.

While not as bad as the W. Bush administration fabricating evidence to justify its rush to war in Iraq, it certainly merits condemnation.

There is more. It turns out the IRS (the federal tax department, for those unfamiliar with it), undertook audits of right-wing political organizations seeking tax-exempt status as non-profit entities. IRS auditors were instructed to use key words and phrases such as “Patriot,” “Tea Party” and other common conservative catch-phrases as the basis for deeper audits of organizations using them. That is against the law, albeit not unusual: the W. Bush administration engaged in the same type of thing.

Most recently it has been revealed that the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Eric Holder (a recent visitor to NZ), secretly obtained two months of phone records from over 100 Associated Press reporters and staff, to include their home land lines, office and cell phones (in April-May 2012). The purpose was to uncover leaks of classified information about counter-terrorism operations to reporters after AP managers refused to cooperate with government requests to divulge the sources of leaks. That made the phone tapping legal. But there was an option: the government could have subpoenaed those suspected of receiving leaks and forced them to testify under oath as to their sources.

The main reason I am disappointed is that the Obama administration should have been better than this. I never expected the W. Bush (or the Bush 41, Reagan or Nixon administrations) to do anything but lie, cover up, fabricate, intimidate and manipulate in pursuit of their political agendas. They did not disappoint in that regard. But I do expect Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, to behave better in office. They are supposedly the defenders of the common folk, upholders of human rights and civil liberties, purportedly staunch opponents of corporate excess and abuses of privilege.

Republicans inevitably use public office to target domestic opponents and bend the law in favor of the rich and powerful. Democratic administrations are supposed to be better because, among other things, they know the consequences of such manipulation. Yet apparently they are not, even if these events pale in comparison to the crimes and misdemeanors of Republican administrations.

I am not being naive. I spent time working in federal agencies under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, and the difference in approach to the public trust, at least in the fields that I worked in, were great and palpable. It would seem that the things have changed since then.

Democratic governance often involves the compromise of principles in the pursuit of efficiency or cooperation in policy-making. There are always grey areas in the conduct of national affairs, and there are events and actions where reasons of necessity make secrecy more important than transparency in governance. The actions outlined above are neither.

I still prefer Obama to any of the GOP chumps that rail against him. But as John Stewart makes clear in this funny but scathing (and profane) critique, he and his administration have just stooped closer to their level.

Hence my disappointment.


They Never Learn.

datePosted on 12:27, May 23rd, 2012 by Pablo

There is an old rule in politics that states that it is not the original sin that gets politicians in trouble. It is the cover-up or lying about it that does them in. The examples that prove the rule are too numerous to mention and span the globe. This week we have another classic case in point: Shane Jones and his explanation as to why, as Associate Minister of Immigration (the Minister of Immigration at the time, David Cunliffe, had earlier refused to revoke Liu/Yan’s residence visa and for some reason unknown to me was not involved in the granting of citizenship), he ignored expert legal advice and granted a Chinese fraudster expedited citizenship.

According to Jones he did so on humanitarian grounds because he was told by an unnamed Internal Affairs official that the applicant–he of at least three different names and an Interpol warrant out for his arrest–would be executed and his organs harvested if he were sent back to China. Forgive me if I cough. That is up there with Annette King’s claims that no one in the Labour government knew about Operation 8 until the weekend before it began.

Others have already torn Mr. Jone’s supposed rationale to shreds. Beyond the fact that not even the Chinese execute people for common fraud, even if they are members of Falun Gong (a claim supposedly made by but never proven by Mr. Liu/Yan), a legitimate fear of a politically-motivated death sentence would result in an asylum request, not a citizenship application based  upon a business visa. Nor would Mr. Liu/Yan speak of traveling back to China with a delegation of Kiwis in order to explore business opportunities in the PRC (as it is claimed he did in his conversations with immigration officials now testifying at his trial on false declaration charges). But according to Shane Jones, not only was he facing certain death but also certain organ harvesting (which raises the question as to how the unnamed Internal Affairs official could know this in advance given that the Chinese do not harvest organs from all executed prisoners because the health of the condemned varies). Put bluntly, Mr. Jones is simply not credible, and unless that unnamed official comes forward to take responsibility for the bogus claims (which Mr. Jones could have ignored), his justification simply does not wash. Add in the fact that Mr. Liu/Yan had donated considerable sums of money to Labour coffers in the lead-in to his citizenship application, and the smell of something fishy permeates the affair.

What is amazing is that when confronted with the evidence presented in court, David Shearer continued to back Mr. Jones and even allowed him to go public with is ridiculous justification. That violates a second rule of politics, which is that when smoke begins to surround a politician on ethical issues his or her party needs to move swiftly to prevent a full-fledged fire from erupting by distancing the tainted one from the party as a whole. By not doing so immediately and only leaving open the possibility of standing Jones down if an investigation proves him guilty of wrong-doing in the Liu/Yan affair, Mr. Shearer has failed the basic test of leadership that involves saving the party from further uncomfortable scrutiny on the issue of campaign financing and political donations.

Once again, let us remember the iron law of oligarchy that governs all political parties: the first duty of the party is to preserve itself. Individual political fortunes come second. Legalities aside, it is the appearance of unethical behavior on the part of Mr. Jones that is at play here.

What is even more amazing is that this comes on the heels of the John Banks-Kin Dotcom scandal and John Key’s equally egregious mistake in not removing Banks from his ministerial post while the Police investigated whether Banks violated political finance laws in his dealing with Mr. Dotcom. Regardless of whether the press played this sequence of events on purpose, the scenario unfolded as follows: National was on the ropes in the weeks leading up to a dismal budget announcement, beleaguered by policy and personal conflicts and dogged by an increasingly assertive mainstream press. Rather than strike a contrast in approach that would give it the moral high ground that would allow it to score major political points against its weakened rival, Labour’s response to revelations of the dubious ethics of one of its senior members in a past government–dubious ethics that are being aired in court for crikey’s sake–is to bluster and blow more smoke on the matter. Do they never learn?

Just as Mr. Key should have removed Mr. Banks from his ministerial position as soon as his denials and lies about his relationship with Mr. Dotcom were exposed, so Mr. Shearer should have moved quickly to demote Mr. Jones until such a time as an independent investigation exonerated him. Given the passing of a few news cycles and the issue would have faded into the political “bygones be bygones” category. By not doing so Mr. Shearer has allowed the Jones-Liu/Yan relationship to become a distraction away from National’s peccadillos and policy failures. He has, in fact, thrown National a life line in the days before the budget announcement and the decision to demote Banks (who could stay in government but not be a minister pending the resolution of the Police investigation), and I would imagine that the National caucus are high-fiving and back-slapping each other in delight.

Of course there are political calculations in all of this. By-elections are costly, list candidate replacements are unproven or unreliable, internal Party factional disputes run the risk of being aggravated or exposed.  National is clearly waiting for the Budget to be announced before moving on Banks. Labour does not want to lose a senior figure who “ticks the boxes” of important internal constituencies. And yes, there is a difference between illegal and unethical activity.

But in putting these calculations ahead of ethical considerations given the appearance of impropriety, both parties have once again shown their contempt for the NZ public. And on this score, Labour’s contempt is much worse. After all, Mr. Banks was just a greasy-palmed private citizen seeking to be mayor when he approached Mr. Dotcom for support. Mr. Jones, on the other hand, was a Minister of State who apparently used his office to bestow special considerations on an individual in exchange for, uh, party “favors.”  Both actions were slimy, but it is the official nature of Mr. Jones’s intercession that makes his behavior worse. Which is why he should have been stood down straight away, because rightly or wrongly, it is the attempt to downplay or cover up past impropriety, rather than the potentially unethical or illegal behavior itself, that will cling to the Labour Party long after Mr. Liu/Yan’s case is adjudicated.

A Culture of Impunity?

datePosted on 15:16, January 27th, 2012 by Pablo

During the dark years of dictatorship in South America in the 1970s and 1980s, there emerged a phrase to capture the attitude of the elites who benefitted from such rule: the culture of impunity. It referred not only to the attitude of the uniformed tyrants who ran the regimes, but more to that of the civilian elites who gave them social and economic support, and who benefitted lavishly thanks to the repression and restrictive laws on basic rights of association, dissent and movement. These civilian elites literally lived above the law, since they could, if not be directly protected by the regime’s thugs, be immune from prosecution or liability for crimes and other transgressions they committed simply because of who they were. Murders, rapes, abuse of servants, violent attacks on members of the public–all of these type of behavior were excused, ignored or bought off rather than be held legally accountable (I do not mention justice simply because it is impossible to have real justice under dictatorial conditions). Although there was variation in the attitude of some elites and cross-country differences appeared as well, the bottom line is that during the authoritarian period in South America a culture of impunity developed that was one of the salient social characteristics of the regimes in question.

With that in mind I ask readers if such a culture of impunity exists in NZ. I ask because it strikes me that although diluted and less repressive in genesis, there appears to be an attitude of impunity in the political and economic elite. They can buy silence and name suppression when they misbehave; with a wink and a nod they accommodate employment for their friends and provide sinecures for each other (think of various Boards); they consider themselves better informed, in the know, more worldly and therefore unaccountable to the popular masses when it comes to making policy (think of the use of parliamentary urgency to ram through contentious legislation and the NZDF command lies about what the SAS is actually doing in Afghanistan); they award themselves extraordinary powers in some  times of crisis (Christchurch) while absolving themselves of  responsibility in others (Rena). They use the Police for their own purposes (Teapot Tapes and Occupy evictions, the latter happening not because of public consensus but done by summary executive fiat). More generally, think of the lack of transparency in how government decisions are made and the duplicity of elite statements about economic issues (say, the price of wage goods) and political matters (e.g., recent internal security legislation). Coupled with equally opaque decision-making in NZ’s largest publicly-traded firms, or the cozy overlap between sectors of the judiciary and other elites, the list of traded favors and protections is long.

None of this would matter if NZ was run by Commodore Bainimarama. It would just be another Pacific island state ruled by a despot and his pals. But as a liberal parliamentary democracy NZ regularly scores highly on Freedom House and Transparency International indexes, to the point that it is often mentioned at the least corrupt country on earth (which is laughable on the face of things and which raises questions about the methodologies involved in such surveys). To be sure, in NZ traffic cops do not take cash bribes and judges do not have prostitutes procured for them by QCs representing defendants, but corruption does not have to be blatant and vulgar to be pervasive. And in the measure that elite sophistication in accommodating fellow elites outside of the universal standards applicable to everyone else is accepted as routine and commonplace, then a culture of impunity exists as well.

My experience in NZ academia, two respectable volunteer organizations and in dealing with national and local government officials suggests to me that such a culture of impunity does exist. It may not be that of Pinochet, Videla, Stroessner, Banzer or Geisel, but it seems pervasive. It appears to have gotten worse since I arrived in 1997, which may or may not be the fault of market-driven social logics and the “greed is good” mentality that has captured the imaginations of financiers, developers and other business  magnates (or it could just be a product of a long-established tradition of bullying, which has now spilled over into elite attitudes towards the country as a whole).

Mind you, this does not make NZ a bad place. It simply means that there is an encroaching, subversive authoritarian sub-culture at play amongst the NZ political and economic elite that undermines the purported egalitarianism and equality on which the country is ostensibly founded (I am sure there are sectors of Maoridom who will take reasoned exception to that claim). And if so, has the corrosive culture seeped into the body politic at large so that almost anyone is a relative position of power vis a vis others thinks that s/he can get away with behavior otherwise contrary to normal standards of decency and responsibility?

Does NZ has a culture of impunity?