Monday, December 13, 2010


There are different kinds of heroes. Some are people who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time but who rise to the occasion. There are the quiet heroes who sacrifice to give their children a better start, the parents who break the cycle of abuse so that their children never have to endure what they did. There are professional heroes – fire fighters and ambulance operators. People like Police Inspector Mike O'Leary, who risked his life and suffered severe burns to rescue two children from a burning vehicle. These are the people we celebrate.

But there are those who bear as much emnity as acclaim. People who put themselves on the line in order to expose the truth and challenge power. The danger these people face is not from random natural events, from enemy soldiers or dangerous criminals. The danger they face is from their own governments and its allies, their armies, their police forces and their secret services.

One of these is Julian Assange, the Australian-born founder of Wikileaks which last week released 251,287 leaked United States embassy cables into the public domain. The cables have already proven to be highly embarassing both to the US Government and to others. They show the US spying on its allies and on UN officials, including taking iris scans, DNA samples and fingerprints from foreign officials. It shows the US Government condoning corruption and human rights abuses in “friendly” governments and using its diplomatic power to advance the interests of US corporations. It shows collusion in torture.

You may ask what is new about any of this. We know that the Whitehouse's rhetoric on 'freedom' and 'anti-terrorism' goes hand in hand with funding terrorists and supporting dictators. What these cables provide, though, is self incriminating evidence of the corruption at the heart of American foreign policy. It is worth reflecting on the role that the Waihopai spy base plays in this, as the New Zealand Government prepares to persecute the 3 men who helped pull the cover from that place almost 3 years ago.

Of course Mr Assange isn't sounding much like a hero after being accused of various sexual offenses in Sweden. He is currently detained in Wandsworth Prison, London after being refused bail and is being held almost incommunicado. On Wednesday, according to The Guardian, he was allowed one 3 minute phone call with his lawyer.

Rape accusations should not be belittled. Women face major obstacles to get justice in the courts, especially in Sweden. However I can't help noting some suspicious elements to the case. First, no charges have been laid. He is only wanted for questioning. The allegations led to a police arrest warrant in August but it was rescinded a day later by a senior prosecutor. Apparently she said that she believed the women, she just didn't feel what happened was a criminal act.

It is hard to see how Assange can be denied bail and extradited just so he can attend a police interview. Katrin Axelsson of 'Women against Rape' has remarked at the unusual zeal of Swedish and British authorities to pursue Assange. “There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women's safety” she writes. “Women don't take kindly to our demand for safety being misused, while rape continues to be neglected at best or protected at worst”.

According to media reports the USA has already talked to Swedish authorites about on-delivering him to the USA, where media commentators are calling for him to be assasinated and the Justice Dept is talking about espionage charges. Given Sweden's compliance (documented by Wikileaks) in delivering prisoners up for torture to Egypt under US pressure, it seems unlikely they would refuse. What remains to be seen is whether making a martyr out of Assange will weaken Wikileaks, or just make it grow.

(from my Waikato Times column 11 Dec 2010)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Pike River - Hard Coaled Facts

The bodies of the Pike River miners haven’t even been recovered yet and the industry PR has begun. Days before John Key’s announcement of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the disaster, the Chief Executive of the Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce was on National Radio talking up the economic benefits of coal mining for the West Coast. On the same day the Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn was saying that business at Pike River needs to continue. Commendably Pike River Coal itself was more circumspect, saying that the focus for now is the families.

Most New Zealanders would agree. The nation watched alongside the families as the tragedy unfolded. People spoke about it in their lunch rooms and over cups of tea. We waited to hear the outcome, hoping to be able to celebrate some unlikely good news. We felt the shock and sadness of the families at the news of those 29 deaths. Now our thoughts and prayers are with them as they farewell the departed, those they love who have returned to the Oneness of all things.

There are always lessons to be found in death of course - reminders of how short our time is in this life, how unpredictable the end. I feel for those whose last words to their beloved were harsh and angry, an overspill of some small irritation now made completely irrelevant. I think about the personal legacy each man left, unknown to me, but alive in the hearts of friends and family, of times shared together, of gestures of love, friendship, generosity and solidarity. The stuff that really matters once you are gone.

In one sense, though, these men’s deaths are part of the price paid for coal. Coal mining IS dangerous. There are many things that can be done to manage and mitigate risk but we are deluding ourselves if we think we can have coal without some people dying for it. Just as we are deluding ourselves if we think we can sustain our petroleum addiction by drilling in ever more difficult and dangerous places without suffering more marine catastrophes. Fossil fuel addiction, like P addiction, has little regard for its collateral damage.

The real destruction from continued coal mining, though, will be the deaths it causes outside the mines rather than inside them. As the world meets this week in Cancun to have another go at trying to avert a climatic disaster, there is growing concern about feedback loops such as the methane from thawing Siberian permafrost. The other big concern is the impact that coal is having on the climate – especially as the reality of peak oil hits home.

Conventional oil production is already plateauing and will begin to dwindle. At the same time increasing demand will push prices up to record highs (prices will be erratic but the trend will be upwards). One of the likely responses will be an increase in the use of tar sands and coal-to-liquid fuel to fill the gap. In fact New Zealand’s own government owned Solid Energy has just such a plan to convert lignite coal to diesel. The world cannot afford to keep burning coal even at our current rate, never mind increasing its use through these mad schemes. At the same time the coal industry’s great hope of Carbon Capture & Storage is being increasingly discredited.

Let’s be blunt - it is time to end the coal industry. It is important that we properly acknowledge the deaths of the 29 men at Pike River, but in the end there is a bigger question to be decided than mine safety.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Waste to diesel

One of the worst things I have ever smelled in my life was a rotting pumpkin. We'd spent the summer travelling around Aotearoa in my van and it had accompanied us the entire journey. Coming back through Taupo someone picked it up by the stalk intending to use it in a soup, but the little handle pulled off with a wet slurp to reveal the decomposing putrescence inside. The only good thing about that day was that no-one managed to spill the contents of the curcubita all over the upholstery.

I was taken back to that unpleasant event last week at the presentation of a new report into household organic waste. It's been known for some time that one of New Zealand's big waste / resource recovery issues is the kitchen waste going into landfills. This and other organic waste is the main source of methane emissions going into the atmosphere from landfills (3 percent of NZ's greenhouse gas emissions) and a major source of toxic sludge out the bottom.

The stupid thing about it is that, like most of the stuff going into landfills, kitchen and green waste is a valuable resource if properly processed. By simply composting food and garden scraps, for example, it is transformed by an amazing natural alchemy into rich, fertile soil. Applied to agricultural and horticultural land it adds nutrients, builds topsoil, increases earthworm counts and healthy microbial activity, increases the water holding capacity of soils and boosts yields. Since New Zealand loses a significant amount of topsoil each year it seems amazing that we don't already do it.

Unfortunately New Zealand's waste stream is mostly locked up by multinational corporations who make money by trucking rubbish to landfills and burying it. Foreseeing the rise in environmental awareness, and an increase in reuse and recycling, they have been preparing for the future by locking councils into long term contracts that guarantee waste volumes for their tips. They often use their monopolistic position to bully smaller councils into signing contracts that more or less prevent the introduction of comprehensive recycling services.

Luckily there are a number of New Zealand operators who take a more responsible approach. Many people are already aware of the stunningly successful efforts of the various enterprises making up the Community Recycling Network and the huge environmental, social and economic benefits they bring to their local communities. They and other New Zealand businesses are demonstrating that taking environmental and social responsibilities seriously makes for better business practises.

So I was eager to go along to the report launch and hear what other options there are when it comes to kitchen waste. The report was written by Eunomia Research for Greenfingers Garden Bags / Earthcare Environmental Ltd and Envirofert Ltd and develops a cost / benefit analysis for household organic waste. It looks at what best practise councils do around New Zealand, what different authorities do overseas and models a variety of options for New Zealand to see where the greatest benefits are likely to be found.

In the end what seems to give the best outcome is a weekly kitchen waste collection and a fortnightly other rubbish collection. Food scraps makes up the bulk of most people's residual rubbish (after recycling) and if that is collected separately then the residual rubbish is halved. Smell is probably the biggest problem with a fortnightly pick up, but if the food scraps are gone this shouldn't be a problem. The presenters demonstrated a neat sample kitchen caddy for the bench, with a locking lid to keep out pests and with watertight, breathable compostable bags for a liner.

The costs to implement such a scheme are minimal, given the other savings to be gained from reducing frequency of residual rubbish collection and savings in landfill charges. The research suggests that a substantial consumer surplus can be gained from composting the waste in this way instead of landfilling it. When organic waste is composted it is broken done by aerobic (air loving) bacteria. This means it either has to be turned regularly or to have air forced into it. The main by-products are carbon dioxide, heat and plant food.

Even better than composting, according to the report, is putting the waste into am anaerobic methane digester. Anaerobic digestion is when anaerobic (air hating) bacteria break the waste down. The byproducts of that are methane (a powerful greenhouse gas), heat and plant food. This is what happens in a landfill, and even with methane capture most of the methane goes into the atmosphere. In a digester all the methane is captured and can be used as a natural gas for burning, or can be turned into diesel to run vehicles. This is being successfully done overseas.

So we can turn the country's kitchen waste into diesel and run all the rubbish trucks on it, instead of letting it rot in the landfill and pollute the ground and the atmosphere? That's worth getting on to your council about!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Death by stupidity

One of the things I love about Aotearoa is that our forests are pretty safe. They do eat people ocassionally but it's rare. The taniwha in the rivers do too, now and then, but people usually know where the danger spots are. What we don't have are a dozen varieties of venomous snakes, scorpions, lethal spiders or large people-eating carnivores. I guess an angry pig could do some damage if it caught you unawares, but it's not something trampers are likely to worry about.

All of which, I guess, makes the tragic death of Rosemary Ives all the more aggravating. The idea that a person could be accidently shot while brushing her teeth before heading off to bed at a DoC campsight makes me angry as hell. My immediate response was to “throw the book at the bugger responsible” for being negligent with a lethal weapon, for shooting near a public campsight, for 'spotlighting' from the road and for just being a dick. The fact that 2 other similar incidents were reported over the same weekend just added to my disgust.

A Hamilton man, Andrew Mears, has now been charged with careless use of a firearm causing death and I welcome that. His lawyer says that his family wishes to meet with Ms Ives' family to express their sympathy but have been advised that it is too soon. I have no doubt that Mr Mears and his family are completely shattered by this event and I hope that they do get an opportunity to express their sorrow to the Ives' face to face because it may help soothe that family's terrible, irreparable loss.

But I am beginning to wonder what good 'throwing the book' at anyone would actually do. If Mr Mears is convicted, what use would there be in putting him in prison? It won't affect his likelihood of reoffending. To be honest I'd be surprised if he could even bring himself to pick a gun up again. Neither will it have any deterrent effect. Anyone stupid enough to hunt in the dark near a campsight by spotlighting from a vehicle is clearly not thinking about possible consequences – to themselves or to others. If the possibility of killing someone isn't enough to dissuade them, the length of the sentence if they do is unlikely to have an impact.

There are three issues that a real justice system would need to address, in my opinion. The first is how the family and friends of Ms Ives can find some peace in the midst of their grief. A restorative justice approach seems to me to be much more likely to deliver that than the standard cold court system and I hope they are given the chance to consider it and support if they wish to use it.

The second is to hold the culpable person responsible. Again, a restorative justice conference where the killer has to face Ms Ives' family and look them in the eyes would be a lot harder, and a more powerful way of taking responsibility, than time in prison.

The third issue is how do we prevent, or at least lessen, this kind of moronic behaviour in the future? Hunting accidents are not THAT uncommon, although usually it involves hunters shooting other hunters, often their friends. If people faithfully followed the Arms Code that they are tested on when they apply for a gun license this shouldn't happen, but I suspect that some people treat it like a school test – learn it enough to regurgitate on the day and then forget about it.

The Deeerstalkers Association is urging all hunters to learn from the bad practises that led to Ms Ives' death, but I wonder whether a more systematic approach is called for. The question is, how do we make people understand when they get a gun license that carelessness really can lead to them killing someone. How do we get them to really think about that? Our current licensing procedure doesn't even try. Perhaps a compulsory viewing of the confessions of convicted hunter-killers would help bring the lesson home.

(from my Waikato Times column 29/10/10)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ankle tapping MMP

I was quite impressed with the way John Key tried to ankle tap MMP a couple of weeks ago. He never actually came out and said that he wants to get rid of it. Instead he told us, the public, that this is what WE are thinking. We just needed a little help to work that out.

It was a brilliant tactic. It allowed him to take a stab at our electoral system while leaving room to about-face if the political dynamics and focus-group opinions change. It sounded like he was on the pulse of the nation, but committed him to nothing. John Key may be relatively new to parliamentary politics, but he's a natural.

Key has tried from the beginning to portray himself as an impartial adjudicator in the MMP debate. He is only holding a referendum because that is what the public want. It is 'the people', rather than John Key, who are now questioning MMP as a result of the ACT party's self-destruction. I'm not saying they should or shouldn't take that view he told us. This begged the question of exactly which 'people' he was referring to. The answer came a week later. Leaked minutes showed that his chief of staff had been talking with Peter Shirtcliffe about pushing the Supplementary Member (SM) system as an alternative to MMP.

Peter Shirtcliffe, for those that don't know, was the main figure behind the campaign to derail the MMP referendum in 1993. He was chair of Telecom at the time, and realised that a more democratic voting system is a threat to corporate profits. He managed to get more donations from his big business buddies than Labour and National combined, which is telling in itself, and the combination of big money and deceptive advertising almost took the referendum. Nevertheless people power won the day in the end.

To be fair, John Key probably was a bit agnotic about MMP while ACT remained a viable political partner. While an outright majority would make it easier for National to ram free market fundamentalism through parliament (which was one of the reasons we got rid of FPP in the first place) he was quite comfortable knowing that he could rely on ACT for support on one side and the Maori Party on the other. This provides a lot of scope for a centre-right politician, with the bonus of having a coalition agreement to blame for unpopular policy initiatives in either direction. With ACT gone at the next election, as seems likely, Key now has only one direction to lean. National must be burning offerings in thanks that the referendum planning is already underway.

So expect to see more undermining of MMP by the National Party up until the election. It's not without its own risks for them though. Drumming up concern about the influence of small parties under MMP may grow a mood for change, but a return to FPP, or a move to SM, may not bring that to an end. Getting rid of MMP will probably spell the end of some small parties, but one in particular will be the big winner. The Maori Party has five MPs by virtue of its electorate vote. Party votes add nothing. With the other small parties gone, it is likely that Labour and National would both be reliant on the Maori Party to form a government on a regular basis. Far from ending the influence of small parties, a move to a less proportional system would probably just give the Maori Party a monopoly.

I suspect that is not what Peter Shirtcliffe had in mind.

(from Monkeywrenching)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Peaking oil

For a country so dependent on importing and exporting we are amazingly relaxed about the state of the world's oil supply. The report into 'peak oil' by the German military leaked in Der Spiegel last week barely rated a mention in our mainstream media. Neither did the British government's Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security report. Both made sobering reading.

Let's be clear - no one is saying that the earth is running out of oil anytime soon. In fact 'peak oil' refers to the peak of production, when we are producing the most we ever will. The problem is that production will then start to decline at the same time as resurgent powers such as China and India seek a bigger share. Oil prices are likely to become very erratic as speculation and recurring recession drive demand up and down, but the basic trend will be a permanent oil supply crisis with fossil fuels becoming very expensive.

The likelihood of this and its implications are what the two reports were attempting to explore. The British reports warns of a supply 'crunch' in the near future and says that we need to act now to prepare. The Bundeswehr report warns of shifts in the global balance of power, a decline in importance of the western industrial nations, a "total collapse of the markets" and of serious political and economic crises. Both reports stressed the urgency of the situation that we face.

Up until a couple of years ago discussions around peak oil were never heard among ‘hard-nosed’ business people or politicians. It was only the extremist freaks that kept trying to bring attention to these issues – hippies, greenies, geologists. Now, like on so many other issues, fringe opinion is being adopted by the mainstream.

(As an aside, wouldn’t it be nice to see some acknowledgement of the hippies? I’m sick of seeing guys in power suits talking about the environment and then saying “but don’t think I’m some kind of hippy” as if we would ever mistake their boring old arse for one)

It looks like peak oil is here, although we won’t know the precise moment until it has passed. Globally we go through just over 30 (US) billion barrels of oil a year, but for the last ten years new discoveries have amounted to around 10 billion barrels a year. We have already got most of the easy to get stuff and now we are going after the rest. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is in some ways a predictable outcome of our oil dependency as we source our oil from increasingly more remote oil fields, employing more complex and inevitably riskier production techniques.

However there does not appear to be any energy source capable of fully replacing oil, and neither are we making the investments now that would be needed to even attempt to do so. In Aotearoa the government is still ploughing money into road building while neglecting the transportation systems that will survive the end of cheap oil – rail, coastal shipping, walking and cycling. There is even talk about spending some $20 million to put a tunnel through the Kaimai’s to carry road freight (hat-tip Mark Servian). I can’t help wondering what that money could do if we invested it in trains.

One thing for sure is that the end of cheap oil will hit us all hard. Fossil fuels power our food production systems and its distribution. Transportation, materials production, international trade, construction... basically everything will become a lot more expensive. There is a lot that we can do to begin preparing for the end of the oil age, and many communities are already getting started. While we cannot maintain our current lifestyles, we can maintain or even improve our quality of life. We just need to do the kinds of things that hippies have been talking about since the 1970’s – energy efficiency, localised economies, waste reduction, passive solar building design, walkable cities, and a focus on building communities rather than making more stuff.

Despite the government’s wilful negligence on this issue we have a choice – begin to make the transition towards a low energy future or ignore the problem and watch Rome burn. Personally I’m not waiting for the politicians.

(from Monkeywrenching)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ecological overshoot

Last week the human species went into debt. Not financial debt, but in something far more important – the service flows of the environment. Money is just something we made up, useful but ultimately illusory. If we go into ecological debt, on the other hand, there is no government or lending establishment that can bail us out. There are no appeal rights against the laws of nature.

It's a simple idea. Think of it like a business. If it spends more than its income, eating into its capital, it will eventually go bust. A family budget is the same. If times are hard you may have to spend some of your savings on groceries and rent but sooner or later you have to learn to live within your income.

Natural resources are the same. We cannot continually take more resources than the environment can regenerate, yet most wealthy countries live far beyond their environmental means. If everyone in the world lived like the average American we would need the resources of at least 5 planets. For the UK it is 3.4 planets, and New Zealand is probably somewhere around there. The per capita consumption of China is estimated to be close to one planet living.

I personally don't aspire to the lifestyle of the average chinese, so I'm interested in how we reduce our consumption without losing our quality of life? Which begs the question of what it is that makes the 'good' life. It's something that we don't seem to much ask ourselves these days, obsessed as we are with living the 'big' life. We have locked ourselves into a growth frenzy that makes us work harder for less happiness. Most people have less time to spend with their family or their friends, less time to walk along the river bank or share a meal together and less financial security despite the economic growth of the past few decades.

Much politics is focussed on cutting spending on the things that make people happier in order to boost spending on things to increase economic growth. It is assumed that this will make us better off, although there is no evidence to think so. In my opinion, it is time that we began to invest in infrastructure to improve the well-being of our people. Not because it will boost tourism, not because studies show that happy citizens are more productive, not because it will give savings in the health sector, but simply because it will make us all better off in the only terms that really matter – enjoyment of life.

One of the candidates for Hamilton City Council, Mark Servian, has said “A community is a home, not a business, so council spending decisions should be based on 'cost-benefit', NOT 'profit-loss'. Neither a household or a firm can let itself go broke, but the city is first and foremost where we live our lives. The council is our shared project for making our collective home much more pleasant”. I agree. It is a pretty bleak vision that sees pavements, drains and rubbish as the only things councils should be interested in. In my view we will learn to live within our ecological means by living better lives and local councils have a major role to play in that..

One obvious strategy in Hamilton is to invest in making it a more walkable, cyclable city. With our flat streets, our gully system, our river banks and our parks it is hard to imagine a place better suited for it. This could be combined with a functioning passenger rail service to Auckland and better cycle and public transport connections to outlier towns to make getting around a joy rather than a source of road rage. I wouldn't be the only one that would be both happier and greener because of it.

(from my Waikato Times column)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Miscarriages of Justice and what to do about them

There is no such thing as a perfect justice system, where the guilty are always convicted and the innocent acquitted. In fact the most heinous mass murderers, the tyrants and warmongers that decide the fate of nations rarely even stand trial. Justice, like truth, is a journey rather than a destination.

One traveller on that road is Professor Graham Zellick, who has been in Aotearoa recently to talk about the UK Criminal Cases Review Commission. This was set up in 1997, following some high profile cases in the UK, to review possible miscarriages of justice. His talk was both informative and compelling, partly because New Zealand's justice system is a part of the 'common law family' that stems from Britain and is subject to many of the same problems.

That problems exist in the New Zealand appellate system is not news. Public disquiet remains about a number of high profile convictions. Other verdicts, such as Arthur Allan Thomas, David Doherty, Alec Waugh and David Bain have been overturned after lengthy terms of imprisonment. It was concern about such cases that led retired High Court Judge Thomas Thorpe to conduct a self funded investigation into miscarriages of justice and recommend that New Zealand establish a body like the UK CCRC.

Appeal courts find it very difficult to correct certain kinds of problems in the court system. According to Zellick, this is partly due to an excessive confidence the system places on jury verdicts. Appeal courts are happy to look at questions of law, procedural issues and the like. They are very reluctant to look at questions of fact and say that the jury simply got it wrong.

One of the ways that juries can be misled is through expert witnesses. Zellick spoke about the case of Sally Clark in the UK who was imprisoned for murdering her cot-death baby, mostly on the basis of now-discredited theories of a Dr Meadows. As he spoke I was reminded of the FBI evidence that was so crucial in convicting John Barlow, evidence that has now been shown to be wrong.

Although it is not a point he made, it also seems likely that juries give unwarranted attention to certain kinds of evidence. Contrary to common sense, two of the biggest causes of wrongful conviction (as evidenced by DNA based exonerations) are confessions and eye witness identification evidence that most ordinary people would expect to be reliable.

The UK CCRC gets about 1000 applications a year, refers 30 - 40 cases back to the courts and about 70 percent of those result in a conviction being quashed. This is all at a cost of around £8 million. The Scottish CCRC, serving a population of around 5 million people, costs about £1 million. When you consider that it costs about $90 000 to keep one person in prison for a year then a CCRC in Aotearoa might well save us money, if effective justice is not a strong enough argument for the Government.

Currently in this country once appeal rights have been exhausted all that remains is an appeal to the Crown for the prerogative of mercy. According to Zellick, this is a bit muddled in New Zealand. The prerogative of mercy is originally a power that the Crown has to overturn a conviction or to commute a sentence. Under the Crime Act this has been changed into an ability for the Governor-General in Council to refer a conviction back to the courts. In practise it is a decision of the Cabinet, which is constitutionally undesirable. The process has been described as ad hoc and inadequate by at least one QC.

Certainly the prerogative of mercy has not provided any benefit for most of the cases where it seems likely or possible that the conviction is unsafe. Note that this does not necessarily mean that the person can be proven innocent, but rather that their conviction cannot be sustained by the evidence. Our system requires proof "beyond reasonable doubt" in criminal cases and it is questionable in number of cases whether this threshold was ever reached. Peter Ellis, John Barlow and David Tamihere are all cases that in my opinion should be looked at by an independent body.

Even more compelling is the case of Scott Watson, who was convicted for the murder of Olivia Hope and Ben Smart in the Marlborough Sounds in 1999. Having read a reasonable amount of different material about the case, I am convinced that not only is there a miscarriage of justice but that Scott Watson is innocent. Unfortunately he, and the others, seem unlikely to get justice until New Zealand has an independent, transparent body to look at alleged miscarriages of justice and do something about it when it finds then.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Suicidal tendencies

I’ve got my own theories about the high rate of suicide in New Zealand (and most of the western world). To my mind we need to address the alienation, the atomisation and the anomie of modern life if we want to get to the roots of the problem. In addition I find it hard to believe that at some level we don’t all feel the ecocide rending the planet. We are part of the fabric of life, despite the illusion of separation, and cannot be mentally healthy while we continue to wreak destruction on ourselves.

Such thinking was not, I suspect, behind the Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean’s call for more media reporting of suicide. He pointed out that while the number of people dying from suicide is 50 percent higher than the road toll, suicide receives comparatively little attention. In this he is correct. The money spent on reducing the road toll is considerable, with public media campaigns and strong enforcement around drink driving and speeding. Suicide prevention is small fry in comparison.

It is hard to understand why this is so. Suicide is not a new problem. Perhaps there is an assumption that it is primarily a youth problem. I don’t mean to be indelicate, but young people only draw significant political attention and ministry resources when we can blame them for shit. There has been far more media time, mental energy and government money spent on boy racers than ever was directed at suicide prevention.

An indication of our collective lack of interest is the fact that an international expert on suicide prevention, Annette Beautrais, left the country just a year and a half ago because of what a colleague described as a lack of support and recognition from the NZ Ministry of Health. Even more telling, the Associate Minister of Health with responsibility for the area, Peter Dunne, didn’t seem to be aware of this.

The media, of course, will blame the politicians for the lack of reporting. The Coroners Act does restrict reporting of suicide to some degree, but this is a bit of a cop-out. The Coroners Act says that if a coroner has found a death to be self-inflicted, no one can make public anything other than the name, address, and occupation of the person concerned and the fact that the coroner has found the death to be self-inflicted. Unless you have the coroner’s permission. They can only give that permission if it is unlikely to be detrimental to public safety.

Given the contested evidence about the effect of media reporting, this seems a good thing. It is a cautious approach that leaves the door open if the evidence stacks up against the notion of ‘copy cat’ suicides. In addition it is the Chief Justice who has responsibility to draw up guidelines for coroners about what may or may not be detrimental.

Strangely you’d never guess this from Judge MacLeans comments. I agree that more reporting is probably a good idea, but it is in his hands to allow this to happen.

Secondly, the restrictions are only around the particulars of specific deaths. There is absolutely nothing to stop the media covering the broader issue of suicide such as trends, research and causes. In particular more coverage of how to spot the warning signs and what to do about it if you do would be helpful. In fact the extensive coverage of suicide in The Press this month is a good example of just what can be done under the current law.

There are many laws that do need to change in this country but this is probably not one of them. Let’s see what we can do with what we have before we start demanding another act of parliament.

Friday, August 6, 2010

In need of a radical localism

Apparently local body elections are coming up soon, although most people would never know. Some of the more imaginative candidates in Hamilton are getting up to all kinds of interesting stuff, but chances are the turn-out this year will be as low as every other local election. Which suits those in power quite nicely.

I can understand the lack of interest. The thought of going to a council meeting kind of makes me cringe inside, even though I know that local councils have more influence on the day to day lives of ordinary people than Parliament does. A lot of my constituency work as an MP was either doing pycho-therapy or explaining to people why I couldn't do much to help them because it was a COUNCIL ISSUE. Even then, I'm not sure it ever inspired them to vote for their city councillors.

More recently there has been another reason to be disinterested in voting in local elections. The sacking of Environment Canterbury and its replacement by a government picked board was a complete travesty of democracy, removing democratic representation so farmers could seize water resources more easily. The fact that the people of Canterbury won't even get to vote for their regional council this year just adds to the injury. The reorganisation of Auckland's goverance to allow the city to be run by business people for business people is a similar usurption of democracy.

The problem stems from our colonial history. In Europe power tends to be more localised because nation states grew out of the federation of independent cities and provinces. Local power often has constitutional protection. In New Zealand the nation states was enforced from the outside and it was highly centralised from its inception so as to facilitate our exploitation. Simply put, we were designed as a farm for England rather than as a democracy. The source of political power is not seen to be the people, but rather the Crown. While we no longer farm for Britain alone, we are still a commodity producer. Efficient production remains a more powerful political imperative than the right of local people to have a say over the things that are important to them.

Some of the most interesting social developments in Europe have resulted from the exercise of local power. The Dutch quasi legalisation of cannabis, for example, began with a decision by a local prosecutor not to prosecute for cannabis. The resulting policy has been so successful at reducing drug related harm than it has been adopted in most of Holland and increasingly in other parts of Europe too. In New Zealand such a development would be impossible. Here we have centrally controlled pilot schemes, with all the political arse-covering that this involves. If successful, they usually have the plug pulled on them in short order so as not to threaten any entrenched interests.

Because power is seen as flowing down from Her Majesty, rather than originating in the people and flowing up to the Parliament, local bodies provide no constitutional constraint on the Government. As we have seen, the Government can sack councils at will. Neither is there any overarching constitutional constrain on the Government. The Government can pass any laws it likes, even if they breach basic human rights, so long as it has the requisite majority. Our system is very much a product of that brief moment in time when the Nation State was all powerful in Europe – just forged out of autonomous provinces and city states but not yet constrained by regional or global systems of goverance. We are frozen in time.

The question is, which do we value more highly - efficiency or democracy? It has become heretical to question any demand of the market, as if the desires of human beings are legitimate only insofar as they facilitate the economy. We have been enslaved by our own invention. The answer, in my opinion, is a radical localism and it begins with a participatory local politics.

(from my Waikato Times column 6 August 2010)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Maori Language Week

By Nandor Tanczos

You can't force people to learn to speak Maori. Actually, you can't force people to do very much at all in the long run, which is why the PR techniques pioneered by Dr Goebbels remain such a popular means of social control.

No, Maori speaking will become more widespread in this country for the same reason that most immigrants learn to speak English: you can't be a fully functioning citizen of this country until you can speak the languages of the land.

You can get by of course, as did those old aunties I knew as a child, who had come out from Europe at an advanced age and who struggled to say more than the basics in English. Many of them spoke multiple European languages but that didn't help much in New Zealand in the 1980's so they stayed within their ethnic enclave, lived long and happy lives and never understood the country they now lived in.

What separated them, and I think most Pakeha, from the unashamedly monolingual and the proudly ignorant that I occasionally come across these days is that they understood it as a weakness. They would have changed it if they could.

I think that a growing number of people feel that about Te Reo today. It is embarrassing for both Maori and Pakeha to go on to a marae, to hear the kuia open the ceremony and lay down the kaupapa of the day with their karanga, to hear the kaumatua follow the women with whai korero, to hear the hapu stand and sing ancient chants in support, full of history and whakapapa and wisdom, and to not understand a word of it.

It is embarrassing to sit stony-faced as the assembly roars with laughter over the banter and the barbed jokes. It is discomforting to stand and mouth words to songs you don't know as the people around you fill the air with rising harmonies and deep booming notes. It is most of all disturbing to realise the extent of ones own cultural ignorance and incompetence.

For most of us that realisation of ignorance leads to a desire to learn more so as to understand more. For some others it creates a defensiveness and a retreat back to the comfort zone. Perhaps that is why some people continue to determinedly call Taranaki mountain 'Mt Egmont', continue to butcher simple Maori phrases or seek to make a virtue (and political capital) out of their refusal to spell place names correctly.

It's just the frightened child inside them, feeling lost in a complex world. Nevertheless the fact that many of us are less able than a toddler when entering a Maori environment is not really our fault.

Luckily Maori people tend to be extraordinarily forgiving of even quite serious unintended offences. They know that our education system does little, by and large, to prepare New Zealanders for the social reality of living in Aotearoa today, where the ability to walk confidently in both worlds will increasingly determine our ability to participate and succeed.

Most of us, I think, welcome this new reality. We live in Aotearoa, in Polynesia, and we reflect that in our food, our lifestyles, our attitudes and in the maorified English that we increasingly speak.

What is also clear is that, as with many other indigenous cultures around the world, the Maori worldview has something of great importance to offer a human population increasingly alienated from the natural world of which we are a part.

This is not to romanticise or wish away the many problems that Maori society faces, but simply to recognise that Maori people, after killing off the moa and irreparably changing the New Zealand environment, learned over time to live in balance with the natural ecosystems of this land and much of that knowledge remains. Pakeha culture has not yet done so, and has much to learn from tangata whenua in this regard.

Maori Language Week is a good time to acknowledge this, to do a stocktake of the state of the language and for people to pick up a few more words and phrases to bring into their lives. Hopefully it will also renew that desire in a few more of us to become true bicultural citizens.

(from Monkeywrenching)

Monday, July 19, 2010

What are universities for?

Right now we need sociologists more than we need scientists. We need philosophers more than we need forex traders. We need activists far more than we need accountants. There has probably never been a more important time in human history than now to stop and have a good think about where we are going, as we begin to reach the environmental limits of our planet. How predictable, then, that our government should this year launch a renewed attack on universities, and in particular on those disciplines that might help us to do so.

Reflective thinking has, of course, rarely been encouraged by governments or the corporations whose interests they serve. Universities are fine as long as they are churning out lawyers, accountants and managers, grist for the mill, but philosophy and the humanities have long been viewed with suspicion. So when Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce indicates that he wants to make a university degree nothing more than a glorified trade certificate he is simply articulating the logical outcome of decades of tertiary education policies from both Labour and National.

University student bodies were centres of dissent during the heady ‘70s when many of our senior MPs were cutting their political teeth. The children of western affluence had begun to question the point of it all, to ask fundamental questions about what makes 'the good life'. Was material accumulation all there was? How many people would we sacrifice to maintain it?

Interestingly, a number of studies suggest that it was around this time or slightly earlier that economic growth in the west stopped correlating with increased well-being. Those hippies were on to something. For whatever reason though, and there were many, that momentum came to a halt. Politicians ever since have wanted to make sure it doesn't happen again.

The student loan scheme radically changed New Zealand universities. After 1990 students and policy makers alike increasingly viewed tertiary education as essentially vocational, simply in order to justify the graduate debt that accompanied it. The result has been a burgeoning of the business and law schools while humanities have been in decline. Clearly this isn't happening fast enough for the current minister, who now suggests that tertiary funding be linked to employment outcomes. This was a bad idea when it was applied to Youth Training Schemes (YTS) in the 1990's. It's an even worse idea applied to universities, polytechs and waananga today.

The most unconvincing element of all this was the minister's explanation.

"This will send a strong signal to students about which qualifications and which institutions offer the best career prospects - and that's what tertiary education has got to be all about," he said.

The second part of that statement is almost certainly his actual opinion, but to suggest that cutting funding to philosophy is the best way to let students know that they will earn better money from an LLB is just insulting.

Students are well aware of their career prospects, that's why most of them are getting a tertiary education in the first place. Let's be frank - this is about the minister wanting to influence what kinds of things get taught, despite his bald denials.

Which brings us back to the question of what is the point of a tertiary education anyway? Of course we need vocational training we need skilled doctors, teachers, electricians and plumbers. But we also need philosophers, historians, critical thinkers and questioners and to my mind we need them more urgently.

Humans have become extraordinarily good at doing all kinds of things, but we seem to have stopped asking why we bother. The fundamental economic rationalism that informs this government, that sees education and culture and the conservation estate for that matter - as valuable only insofar as they serve the economy, is a profoundly depressing philosophy. That it is out of step with the thinking of most New Zealanders should make the minister pause.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Climategate - no one looks good

No one comes out of the “climategate” email saga looking good. Not the political hopefuls who jumped on the band wagon. Not the sceptic bloggers who allowed their conspiratorial paranoia to get the better of them. Not the climate change sceptic movement generally, whose more extreme members perpetrated a far more vicious kind of bullying and intellectual fraud than they accused their opponents of. Not the scientists at the centre of the saga, who acted to hide data and frustrate those they saw as 'outsiders'. Certainly not the journalist who, in a show of age and banality, appended the tired suffix “gate” to the damn thing.

The third independent review of the emails leaked from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, like the Oxburgh Report and the UK House of Common Science and Technology Committee Report before it, has largely cleared Phil Jones and the other scientists there. It found that their honesty and rigour as scientists was not in doubt. It found no evidence of any behaviours that would undermine the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). What it did find, though, was a lack of openness and an unhelpful and defensive approach to requests for information.

The more serious accusations, such as that researchers cherry picked and manipulated data to achieve the results they wanted, were rejected. The famous 'hockey stick' graph, which shows relatively flat global temperatures for the past thousand or so years and then a spike beginning in the 20th century, was called into question by an email which spoke of using a “trick” to “hide the decline”. This was not a decline in actual global temperatures but in a proxy measure (tree ring data) from the 1960's on. From that time tree ring measures cease to follow actual recorded temperatures and there is a suggestion that pollution is the cause. The report looked at this matter and concluded that the “trick” (of adding in the real temperatures) was used in the sense of 'neat technique' to combine proxy and actual temperature measurements. While the original paper that developed the graph, and the IPCC use of it, had extensively discussed the uncertainties around it and the problem of the divergence of tree ring and actual temperature measurements, the report was critical of its use without these cautions in a World Metereological Organisation report.

Those who had hoped and expected to see the entire edifice of global warming theory come tumbling down as a result of these emails will be in shock. This was probably their best hope of swinging the public debate and it failed. They will be looking for something that makes sense of this result and no doubt some will choose to blame an ever widening conspiracy. The idea that it may be because the evidence actually points to climate change being real is for some people unthinkable. Human history is littered with the corpses of those that would rather die than give up their beliefs.

My hope, though, is that we are able to do something more profound with this moment than lapse back into our respective camps and either gloat or glare. The majority of people are not actually signed up members of any camp in this debate. There is growing concern about climate change because the majority view of scientists seems to be that it is occurring, as a result of human activity, and it carries huge risk for us all. That view has been unaffected by these email leaks, and in fact may become more explicit as scientists respond to the lies and intimidation of some extremists revealed by this saga. But there is also growing concern about what looks like a loss of objectivity among some researchers. The defensiveness and obstructionism among CRU scientists that the emails reveal is unacceptable. If anything, they feed the concern that some scientists are trying to hide something.

One of the failings of the green movement has been in not understanding that people can question the science and indeed the politics of climate change without being anti-science or a cypher for the oil industry. Perfectly reasonable people have perfectly reasonable questions about it and treating them as the enemy is not helpful. Indeed if this saga shows anything, it is the need to depolarise the debate. It may be that the insular tribalism shown by the CRU was a direct response to the aggressive and personal attacks upon them, but it was an unhelpful approach. You don't fight fire with fire, but with water. The challenge for us all, to echo the report, is to find ways to have good public debate that allows the scientific to be discussed, in all its uncertainties, so that people have a better understanding about what we know and what we do not. That problem is, of course, not limited to this issue.

Part of that discussion needs to also be about how we deal with climate change. The National Party made a good start last year with its public consultations but then seems to have ignored them. In my view part of the cynicism about climate change science is driven by the blatant attempt by big business to snatch atmospheric property rights. For example the New Zealand Emission Trading Scheme seems unlikely to do anything to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions since consumers, taxpayers and foresters (bizarrely) are being forced to subside our biggest emitting industries. Its easy to see why some think the whole thing is a scam.

The other issue that the saga highlights is the growing tension between social media and privatised science. All through the western world we have seen a relative disinvestment by governments into science and research and therefore the increasing importance of privately funded science, joint venture research and an emphasis on the commercialisation of research by public institutions. As a result we have seen the growth of interest in, and jurisprudence around, intellectual property rights. How this affects the openness and verification of scientific research is an important discussion. I recall questioning New Zealand's own ESR some years ago about what research they were relying on when they made claims about the efficacy of drug testing in the work place (they were in the process of introducing it into New Zealand on a large scale) to be told that the research was commercially sensitive and therefore not open to scrutiny.

All this is in contradiction to the dynamics of the internet, where everyone expects access to everything and the right to comment on it. While this can open the floodgates to the distasteful, the distorted and the dishonest it can also harness the power of people in the same way that distributed virtual supercomputers harness masses of home PCs . It may be an uncomfortable notion to those who are used to beavering away in a corner of a university with little scrutiny except from their peers but in a world where the myth of value-free and outcome-neutral science and technology is dissolving away, it offers an important opportunity bring some democratic oversight to bear on science. In drawing the importance of this to the attention of scientists, climategate has indeed been a gamechanger.

Rhythms of Life

Death is the ultimate yard stick. If there is anything that can measure the value of our brief personal existence, it is when we fold back into the totality. Death is the supreme perspective and although its lessons are unwelcome and painful we all have to learn them sooner or later.

I've been getting a lot of lessons from death recently, although I'm not sure I'm actually any wiser. The most recent was at the funeral of Jan Abel – my good friend's mother, herself a friend I should say. I listened to the service, to the memorials and recollections and they made a vivid impression on my mind. She was a strong, courageous and spirited woman, an adventurer who, in her youth, had ridden a white horse across the Sahara. Yet I imagined that even in her final moments those days had felt to her like yesterday, just as my own misspent youth feels to me today.

The generations, it struck me, come in waves both rapid and relentless. The rolling rhythms of life that see us change from babes, to children, to young adults full of life and trouble, to pillars of our families, then to wise old heads and death go so quickly that we barely have time to figure out the game before its over. Those waves began long before we got here and will continue long after we have passed away and it is those waves, not the water itself, that defines the human experience. We may drive cars instead of walk and we may play playstation instead of cards but the things that matter the most remain unchanged, making a mockery of our egos and our status.

Does anything remain of us after we die? We can speculate on whether the soul lives on or simply dissolves back into the energy of the universe but to argue about it is pointless. We will all know soon enough. We can build religions around our hopes and desires in an attempt to find a solution to death, but there is no solution, there is only acceptance.

We do know that we live on in a sense, in the memories of the living and in the coiled strands of DNA carried by our descendants. When I listened to the eulogies for Jan and the memories that people cherished it was clear that they were about who she was, not what she had. They spoke of the love she showed to others – not just her family and friends but through her work with the Child Poverty Action Group. Her love lives on in those touched by it, a much preferable form of immortality to cryonics

I don't imagine that Jan had many regrets about her life. She made mistakes, as we all do, and had done what she could to repair the damage. She was blessed to see her granddaughter born, to see the new wave begin its rise and rush towards the shore. I imagine that as she looked back upon her life, with death at her shoulder, she was pretty content.

Not all people are, of course. Perhaps the famous mid life crisis comes from suddenly being confronted with the lessons of death, as we begin to bury our parents and friends. In the East this time of life is traditionally associated with taking up a spiritual practise. In the west, where aging and death is often seen as an enemy to be vanquished rather than a part of life to be accepted, it more often takes the form of an attempt to flee death's approach. Men in particular are reknowned for trying to rejuvenate the plum tree by cutting off all the branches, but death cannot be outrun. Death is not a competitor, but a counsellor.

(from my Waikato Times column 9/7/10)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

GE clover like pulling a Cat out of a Hat

When I heard AgResearch today announcing a breakthrough in the genetic engineering of white clover I was reminded of Dr Seuss. Not his explicitly environmental classic 'The Lorax' so much as 'The Cat in the Hat Comes Back'.

I still remember the sense of panic in the book as a pink stain in the bathtub grows bigger and badder from the grotesque attempts by various cats to clean it up, until it has turned into a major disaster.

The attempt to fix greenhouse gas emissions by genetically engineering clover for pasture fills me with a similar sense of alarm.

There is no doubt that something needs to be done to address New Zealand's agricultural emissions. New Zealand has the 11th highest per capita emissions in the world and around half of that comes from agriculture, in the form of methane and nitrous oxide.

The massive growth and intensification of dairy farming is pushing that contribution up, both by cutting down forest carbon sinks to grow pasture and by converting relatively low intensity sheep and beef farms into high intensity dairy farms.

On the face of it, then, genetically engineering white clover to reduce greenhouse gas emissions seems a good idea. By identifying and then manipulating a genetic 'switch' which allows clover to concentrate condensed tannins in its leaves and stems; AgResearch hopes to be able to reduce methane from stock.

This has enormous commercial potential for AgResearch both here in New Zealand and in the international market. The recent Global Research Alliance meeting in Wellington (see is testament to that.

There are a range of other potential benefits from this work. AgResearch claims that it will mean less bloat in stock.

This is good from an animal welfare and economic point of view, since bloat can be both painful and fatal. In addition the animals will produce more meat and milk, presumably as a result of the reduced methane production.

Conventional clover makes stock more productive anyway, but farmers tend to keep clover cover limited since it can cause bloat. If genetically engineered clover does not cause bloat then farmers can have a higher proportional of pasture in clover.

This is likely to lead to less nitrogen fertiliser being used as well, since clover is leguminous and fixes (or rather hosts a bacteria which fixes) nitrogen in soils.

From an ethical point of view the fact that this is intragenic genetic engineering rather than trangenic may comfort some people. The insertion of human genes into sheep is highly offensive to many.

The manipulation of clover genes and reinsertion of clover genes into clover does not lead to the same level of abhorrence. The genetic engineering industry has been playing on this, with international apologists such as Caius Rommens arguing that intragenic genetic engineering should face less stringent risk assessment procedures than is usual.

New Zealand's own Tony Connor similarly argues that intragenic genetic engineering is not really genetic engineering at all and so is not, or should not be, covered by the legislation.

Since AgResearch says that this new clover is at least 10 15 years away from commercial release, expect to see them lobbying heavily around this issue over the next few years.

This approach only makes sense, however, if all concerns about genetic engineering are irrational by which term I do not mean spurious. If the concern is solely about inappropriate boundary crossing then intragenic genetic engineering must be acceptable. However the genetic engineering debate was never just about emotion versus science.

While I do not for one minute seek to belittle the emotional response of many people that genetic engineering 'just doesn't seem right', I also know that a number of scientists, geneticists even, have grave concerns about the way that genetic engineering is developing.

Those concerns are not blunted by whether the source material comes from the same species or another.

Professor Jack Heineman likens the process of genetic engineering to cutting a few sentences out of a magazine and inserting them randomly into a book. Most of the time the resulting pages makes no sense.

Occasionally they do, but we don't always know all of the resulting changes. Similarly the organisms created by genetic engineering are usually not viable, but occasionally they are.

It doesn't matter whether the inserted words are from the same book or a magazine; the context of the words has changes sufficiently to make the results uncertain. For that reason he rejects any notion that intragenic genetic engineering be treated any differently from transgenic.

New Zealand should be particularly careful about the commercial release of a pollinated pasture plant. Should this clover be released it is almost certain to spread across the country very rapidly and affect surrounding non-genetically engineered varieties and species.

In addition, as the Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering pointed out, we know very little about the effects of genetic engineered organisms on living soils.

AgResearch's solution to methane emissions run the risk, like the cats in the Dr Seuss story, of creating even bigger problems than what we started with. Just as importantly, though, it falls prey to the problem of reductionist thinking that is a significant cause of the ecological crisis we are in and I don't just mean climate change.

By attempting to fix methane emissions by genetically engineering pasture AgResearch is likely to exacerbate the many other environmental problems associated with dairy farming in this country.

The unwillingness to accept any limits to dairy expansion has become a national psychosis and has already led to a government sponsored coup against Environment Canterbury.

It is time to accept that the best all round solution to the problem of unsustainable dairy farming is to de-intensify, and even better, to go organic.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gooder fish

“What do you think about this?” he asked, waving a letter under my nose. I was in Poppa's Takeaways on behalf of the extended family and had just finished placing a complex order in two parts when Dave bounced over. I squizzed at it, surprised. Forest and Bird must have written to every takeway in the country for one to have come to Waingaro Road, Ngaruawahia. It was their latest 'best fish guide' with an explanation of how the shop could improve their fish buying choices.

I go to Poppa's because it ranks among the best fish and chip shops in the country, IMHO, so I was happy to see that Dave didn't take the easy route and throw it in the bin. We talked about why some of his best selling fish rank so badly on the sustainability stakes. I knew that a lot of hoki is still caught by bottom trawling (see my column 'fishing stories') and that there are questions about the quota levels. It seems that there are similar concerns around snapper and other popular fish. We talked about what he could do as a fish seller and he decided that he would put a large photocopy of the guide on his shop wall and encourage customers to move towards more sustainable choices, such as kingfish instead of snapper, or gurnard and tarakihi rather than lemonfish. It would be hard to wean the locals off their favourite fry, but he thought he should at least give it a go.

Now I'm not one of those people who think that green consumerism can save the planet. As a general strategy it is doomed to failure, as John Barrett of the Stockholm Environment Institute demonstrates in relation to greenhouse gas emissions. The reason partly comes down to the Jevons Paradox which says that increasing efficiency leads to increased net resource use. For example, more efficient car engines make it cheaper to drive, so people drive more. Conscious consumerism may be preferable to unconscious consumerism but will be inadequate unless it challenges the dynamics of the growth economy. As a tactic, however, green consumerism can be a powerful lever by opening up markets for sustainable products and by shrinking down markets for unsustainable ones. Put simply, if you're going to buy fish then the 'good fish guide' is a useful thing to have in your wallet or purse.

Or even better, to see on the wall of the local chip shop. No one expects shop keepers to put themselves out of business but we should expect them to provide their customers with this kind of information. Of course many takeaways only stock one kind of fish, in which case customers should be asking them to make sure it is one of the more sustainably harvested kinds, as Burger Wisconsin is doing. Its the kind of action that is easy, non threatening and potentially catalytic. There's no need to be rude or aggressive. When you next go to a place that sells cooked fish, ask if they received a guide from Forest and Bird and how they intend to respond to it. This week is a good week to do that, since yesterday was World Oceans Day.

The world's oceans need a bit of a birthday treat right now, what with BP spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico and anti whaling activists in the Japanese courts. New Zealanders have been understandably preoccupied with Peter Bethune, who faces a potential 15 years in jail for attempting a citizens arrest on board a Japanese whaling boat and has just been cut off by Sea Shepherd in a very strangely timed decision. We have been less conscious of the Japanese Greenpeace activists who also face jail terms for exposing corruption in Japanese whaling. May Tangaroa protect them all.


Monday, June 7, 2010

The Crafar farms and our strategic advantage

Most dairy farmers must hate the Crafars. I know that, like the Police, they've got that 'closed ranks' thing going on, but in private they must be cursing that family. They've probably done more to destroy the carefully constructed image of the New Zealand dairy farmer than all the tree-huggers put together. The Crafars were, after all, the epitomy of farming success. Once New Zealand's largest privately owned dairy operation, they have been reduced to fighting eviction from their farm (a court date has just been set) while their assets are liquidated. Their holdings were so enormous that who will buy them is causing handwringing in the highest places.

Now I don't actually hug trees but I do like them a lot, so I was surprised to find myself agreeing with a range of people opposed to a sale to Hong Kong listed (and Cayman's registered) Natural Dairy (NZ) Holdings. These include Federated Farmers' Lachlan McKenzie, Fonterra's Henry van der Heyden (although the position does seem hypocritical from an industry that is buying up land in South America and opening farms in China as fast as it can) and ex-ACT MP Deborah Coddington, .

To me it just seems stupid to sell-off large swathes of productive land to overseas interests,whether they are Chinese, American or Australian. Unlike Treasury secretary John Whitehead I don't see overseas investment as fundamentally beneficial for New Zealand. I see a dimunition of sovereignty, expatriation of profits to other countries and the maintenance of artificially high land prices. The servicing of the resulting gargantuan farm debts is driving the intensification of dairy farming, with associated over-extraction of water and increased run-off pollution. It is also what is driving the corporatisation of farming, with young farmers increasingly incapable of buying their own farm.

No one seems quite sure what Natural Dairy (NZ)'s game is. Fiona Rotherham in The Independent has questioned the murky financial backing and the 'patchy' business backgrounds of the two front people, Jack Chen and May Wang. She puts this in the context of a Hong Kong propensity for 'pump and dump' stock manipulation schemes, where people talk up a company through grand public announcements and then exit the stock when the price soars. No one is saying that this is what Natural Dairy (NZ) is doing, just that there are some questions that need answering.

Other opponents see a different motive. Henry van der Heyden and Greens co-leader Russel Norman have mentioned food security and there is no doubt that is something that the Chinese Government takes very seriously. According to China’s Ministry of Land and Resources China lost 8 million hectares or 6.6 percent of its arable land in the last decade through soil erosion and salinization. Which is why in 2008 China was drafting a policy to encourage agricultural companies to purchase farmland abroad. Much of this has been in Africa, where the practise of 'land grabbing' is seen as a form of neo-colonialism,since the intent is not to assist local economies to develop but simply to secure resources.

Whether a 'pump and dump' or a 'land grab', New Zealand needs to look very carefully at this proposed sale. Which is why I was pleased to read that Landcorp is considering entering a bid. Given the poor environmental practises of the Crafar's, however, it would be good to see something more regenerative on that land than intensive dairying. Landcorp did some research a few years ago that indicated that organic dairy farming has similar profitability to conventional, although they didn't look at organic sheep and beef, which is where the biggest premiums are. Even without increased profit, the case for conversion is compelling given the environmental gains from organic farming. After the Crafars, it would be poetic to see Landcorp turn the properties into organic R&D dairy farms, and it would be of much greater strategic advantage to New Zealand.

(from my Waikato Times column 4 June 2010)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pirates in Club Med

Once again the Israeli Government and the Israeli Defence Force have shown their utter contempt for (non-Israeli) human life and for international law by boarding an aid ship in international waters and killing between ten and twenty of its passengers. The bitter reality, though, is that condemnation from the non-Islamic world will be token and short lived. If Israel can get away with invading Lebanon, killing at least 1,500 people, mostly civilians, and bombing identified UN peacekeepers what do a few hippies on a boat matter?

Well, not quite hippies. The ship was part of a flotilla ferrying about 700 people, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, a number of European legislators and an elderly Holocaust survivor. It was organised by a broad coalition of groups and although many of the ships were Turkish registered, the activists came mostly from around Europe. The number of casualties is still, at the time of writing, unclear although some reports indicate that most are Turks.

Turkey's relationship with Israel, strategically and historically important, has been under strain for some time. This latest event may be a killer blow. Turkey's Foreign Ministry has said this “breach of international law may lead to irreparable consequences in our bilateral relations” and an unnamed source has indicated that Turkey is looking at its rights under international law.

Amos Harel suggests in Haaretz that the more significant fall-out will be with Palestinians, those with Israeli citizenship and those denied it. If it is confirmed that Raed Salah, the head of the Islamic Movement's northern branch is one of the dead he predicts riots and the real possibility of a third intifada.

The response from Europe has, in contrast, been predicably inconsequential. The EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has called for a "full inquiry". Greece summoned Israel's ambassador to demand a report on the safety of any of its citizens on board and has cancelled a join military exercise with Israel. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was “deeply concerned”. The French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was the most outspoken. “I am deeply shocked.... we do not understand the still provisional human toll of such an operation against a humanitarian initiative that has been known for several days" he said.

But ultimately such words mean nothing. The Israeli Government acts with belligerent distain for the niceties of diplomatic signalling. It knows that it acts as an agent for Western interests in the Middle East. Under such conditions the world can say what it likes but Israel will continue to act with impunity. Who else could get away with slapping the President of the USA in the face TWICE with the same trick and still be told that the US had "no better friend than Israel"? If I didn't know better I'd think that Netanyahu was having a laugh at Obama's expense.

As far as the dead humanitarians go, Israel claims that its soldiers were shot at when they boarded the boat. That is not what the video indicates or what journalists on board the Mavi Marmara report. Even if it were true, people have a right to protect themselves against piracy in international waters.

Israel says that the flotilla was a stunt. Well, of course it was. It is meant to draw attention to the terrible nature and effects of the blockade of Gaza, which Israel and Egypt imposed when the people of Gaza exercised their democratic rights to elect a Hamas government. If the blockade was meant to dislodge Hamas, however, it has been a complete failure. What it has done instead, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is destroy the economy of Gaza and prevent reconstruction of the badly damaged area.

The Israeli government says it allows 15,000 tonnes of aid a week into Gaza but this is a fraction of what is needed according to the UN, which describes the situation in Gaza as “increasingly desperate”. In addition Israel places heavy restriction on reconstruction materials such cement and building materials. South African judge Richard Goldstone, on a UN fact-finding mission has suggested that the blockade of Gaza be considered a crime against humanity.

It would be nice to think that the deaths of the flotilla activists are not in vain and that this terrible incident acts as a catalyst to break the blockade of Gaza and allow the Palestinian people to breathe a bit more freely. Somehow, however, I doubt it. Geopolitics will prove once again to be more important to Western Governments than the lives of Arabs – or indeed of their own people.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Clamping down on cannabis culture

I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist, at least when it comes to the New Zealand Government. I know it's hard to avoid the conclusion that there is more than meets the eye to 9/11, and yes there is pretty good evidence that the CIA has been complicit in the trafficking of hard drugs at least since the Vietnam war, but this isn't America. In New Zealand, bungling is often a more likely explanation than corruption.

That's why I have to reject the suggestion that the current crackdown on the cannabis culture is designed to boost organised crime. That may be the result, but I just don't believe it is the intent. Drug policy is highly complex, very political and driven by a great deal of smug self righteousness. A better candidate for frenzied counterproductive activity would be hard to find, hence these latest moves. Someone in Government clearly thinks that we have gone too far. Cannabis use has become common-place. It is widely accepted even by those who do not partake. The police often turn a blind eye, and that staid body the Law Commission, in its own tentative way, has suggested easing criminal penalties for pot. Clearly it is time we were stamped on.

After the shambles of Operation Lime (Operation Lemon?) which busted the Switched On Gardener chain of grow shops, the authorities moved quickly to try to close down the NORML News last week. This has been the mouthpiece of the cannabis law reform movement for twenty years and is likely to be an important rallying point. The magazine is also an astonishing source of scientific information on the latest research findings around cannabis – the stuff that never gets reported in mainstream media. It is an excellent source of legal and political information, and offers a range of harm minimisation techniques for cannabis users. It also provides tips for the home grower, which was the excuse used to send it to the censors. Growing advice is not the primary purpose of the magazine. What is the primary purpose (and growing advice is a part of that) is to inform people about their rights and responsibilities as citizens, to get them active in changing the law and to encourage them to take responsibility for themselves. The Government should be sponsoring it, not attempting to destroy it.

Even if it was a grow magazine, taking it out of circulation would be a huge mistake, unless the objective was to increase gang drug profits and give a boost to the P distribution networks. There is no way that the Government can police the cannabis market out of existence, except perhaps with the most draconian excesses, and even this has not worked in the USA. The problem with policing is that any genuinely successful operation drives down supply, which drives up the price, which creates more incentive for people to get into the business. One way to seriously dent the illegal market, although not destroy it, is for more cannabis users to grow their own. A more effective way is to tax and license its sale. Either way means less money goes to the gangs and fewer cannabis users come into contact with P through the tinny houses. It’s a win / win. Of course it means accepting that responsible adults, for very good reasons, will continue to have a quiet toot when they feel like it, just as they have always done.

The raids on Switched On Gardener have had the opposite effect. I'm sure that the police officers behind the two year stake out thought they were on to something big, at least at the beginning, but by the time they realised that they were wasting their time and our money it was too late. They had to make arrests in order to justify the sunk costs and they have been inflating their results ever since. Deputy Police Commissioner Rob Pope says that the arrests will "break the cornerstone of the illicit cannabis cultivation industry". I just hope for the police's sake that he actually knows that he is talking rubbish. Serious commercial cannabis operators don't buy their gear from Switched On Gardener. Think about it. If you were a large scale commercial grower would you buy your lights there? Any cannabis growers that do buy from there are most likely to be small time personal growers, people who just want to grow for themselves and a few friends so they don't have to buy it from gangs.

Any attempt to clamp down on the cannabis culture is a wasted effort that is doomed to fail. It's part of being Kiwi now. A better idea would be to follow the examples of Holland and Portugal during the Euro 2000 and 2004 football championships. The official tolerance of cannabis use noticeably reduced incidents of violence around the games. Police spokesman Johann Beelan said that cannabis “was part of the conditions which meant everyone had a good time". NORML NZ President Phil Saxby has suggested something similar for the Rugby World Cup next year. Thoughtful, stoned punters instead of loud, drunk and aggressive? What a delightful idea.

(from Monkeywrenching)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reading Colenso

I decided this week that it was time to read William Colenso's eyewitness account of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Waitangi Tribunal is currently hearing Nga Puhi's version of those events so it seemed fitting. It's actually quite a lively read and gives a reasonable idea of what Governor Hobson and the missionaries said to the gathered Nga Puhi chiefs, as well as some inkling of their debates about what they thought it might mean.

Ever since that day in 1840 the Crown has contended that Maori signed away their sovereignty. I have always struggled to understand how they come to this conclusion. Colenso recounts that the rangatira had the Maori language text read to them and that a number of them signed it the following day. None of them were told the content of the English version and none of them signed it, nor did Hobson. So even though the English version cedes sovereignty, it is difficult to see what that has to do with anything.

The Maori version affirms Maori rangatiratanga (chieftainship) over their own people and possessions but yields kawanatanga to the Crown. What is kawanatanga? It was a new word for Maori, adapted from the Bible, and its meaning is ambiguous. Reading Colenso helps identify what people might have thought it meant.

Before reading out the text of the proposed treaty, the Reverend H. Williams gave a speech on behalf of Hobson. He said that Queen Victoria had sent Hobson out of a desire to do good for the Maori people and for her subjects living in New Zealand. The Queen had no power to restrain British people outside of her own dominions and so asked the chiefs to sign the treaty “and so give her that power which shall enable her to restrain them”. Remember that most Pakeha in New Zealand at that time were pretty savage compared to Maori. He went on to say that the Governor had not come to take their lands but to secure them in their ownership of it, and to ensure the return of lands unfairly taken from them.

The speeches that followed demonstrate that many of the rangatira were suspicious that the real aim of the Governor was indeed to usurp their lands and power. What is clear, though, is that none of them were agreeing to this. There was no consent for the Crown to rule over Maori, but rather for it to restrain the excesses of the Pakeha. The ongoing and unceasing assertion by Maori of their own political sovereignty, such as by Nga Puhi before the tribunal this week, is justified on that basis alone.

Ngai Tuhoe, of course, did not sign the Treaty at all. However they had terrible atrocities afflicted upon them by the Crown and it is their lands that were used to establish the Urewera National Park in 1957. John Key has said this week, in an extraordinary breach of good faith, that the Urewera will not be returned to Tuhoe. Once again this demonstrates why allowing the thief to adjudicate their own case is so problematic.

Apart from sheer racism, it is difficult to see why Tuhoe should not be returned their own lands. The Crown has always said that stolen lands now in private ownership will not be taken for restitution and this is a position that Maori have generally accepted on the basis that although it disadvantages them (since most stolen was settled and farmed) it would create a new injustice to seize it from its current occupants. What the Prime Minister is now saying is that even land owned by the Crown will not be returned unless in dribs and drabs. It would seem to be the sheer size of the Urewera forests that is the sticking point – that is to say it is simply the fact that the Crown is in a position to return the bulk of the land taken that is the very reason it will not. Talk about wanting to steal your cake and eat it too.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My thoughts on Saturday's anti mining march

I had a great time on Saturday, for someone who doesn't much like going on marches. Marches are a bit like petitions in my opinion – a huge amount of effort for something that usually gets ignored. Very often, marches do little more than demonstrate how marginal the issue is to the vast majority of people, and how bereft of ideas the campaigners are. Saturday was an entirely different matter.

First of all, it was HUGE. I started the day somewhere nearish the front, bemoaning what seemed like a poor turnout. Then I realised that the sidestreet was also full of people, that the front was quite a long way ahead of where I thought it was, and that people were continuing to pack in at the back. I spent the march drifting slowly down the line, catching up with old friends, meeting new ones and getting a sense of the size. By the time I got to Myers Park I was in the back row, discussing with John Whyte and Mike Finlayson whether this was the biggest march we have ever seen in Auckland, or one of the biggest. When you get to these sorts of numbers it’s a distinction that is of academic interest only.

Also important was that there was a broad cross section of people, although Maori were not fully represented. The biggest tino rangatiratanga flag in the world was there, but almost no Maori on the mic despite (I understand) being asked. After their shameful vote on the Emission Trading Scheme, I can't help speculating whether the Maori Party is leaving the door open to support the mining proposals. I hope not. Even so, no one who actually looked could argue that this was a crowd of anything other than a wide range of New Zealanders of all ages and walks of life gathering to say a resounding “NO” to the Government's plans to open schedule 4 conservation lands to mining.

Thirdly, it was creative, at least in parts. There is no doubt that the activist movement has been bunkered down for a number of years and this showed. The crazy theatrical displays of other times and places were not much in evidence and I saw no stilt-walkers, dalek beehives or bicycle power soundsystems running off the back of 6 person velomobiles. There was a blow up earth bouncing around, and – joy of joys – some satirical street theatre in the form of CRAP.

CRAP stands for 'Capitalism Represents Acceptable Policy' and CRAP stunts generally consist of people dressing up in suits and representing those corporate interests that are usually invisible at these events. The interesting thing is that attempts to articulate the most extreme and over-the-top satirical propositions actually sound very similar to the lines coming out of mainstream economic and corporate mouthpieces. It indicates just how wide the chasm between us actually is. However putting ourselves in the shoes of our opponents is always a powerful learning experience, and one that the green movement often shies away from. The issues that we campaign on are important and urgent, but this must not prevent us from both reflecting on how we communicate with other people and from thinking about what we can learn from our opponents. Sadly quite a few marchers failed to see both the joke and the point behind it.

Anyway, it was a great march. Lots of fun, empowering and inspiring. A huge thank you to all of the people involved in organising it, and all those who came from far and wide to attend. I went home with a renewed enthusiasm for the campaign. This was not dampened by the predictable response of the Government. Gerry Brownlee had to laugh it off in public and dismiss its importance, despite the consternation it must have caused behind closed doors. The fact is, no march has ever changed a Government's mind as far as I can see, but it will have them privately worried. It is the first serious public demonstration against John Key's Government. And it is at the beginning of the campaign, not its culmination.

What was important about the march, then, was not how it affected the Government, but how it affected those of us who participated. It was a catalyst for all the simmering discontent around this Government to become manifest. It delegitimised the Government's plans and legitimises the opposition. People can argue about how big the majority opposing the mining plans actually is, but regardless of that, like the Springbok tour of 1981, this issue is set to bitterly divide the nation if the Government goes forward with it. Polls do not tell the full story – the powerful passions that this issue arouses in the hearts of ordinary New Zealanders. The covenant that was made between Government, business and citizens in the past that drew the line around the conservation estate is being broken. This march was the first sign of a gathering storm, and one that will not be bought off with token gestures. John Key's Government will rue the day if it decides to ignore the message of Saturday.

(from my TV3 column, Monkeywrenching)

Monday, April 26, 2010


I'm not sure what to make of ANZAC day commemorations. I have been to a number over the years, as a way of paying my posthumous respects to old guys I have met in New Zealand who fought and suffered in WWII. I also go to pay respects to my own family members who died, fighting on the other side, and to pay respects to all those women and men who have suffered in war and reflect on the terrible things they have seen and done and had done to them. I pray I never have to experience such things.

I guess my ambivalence about the public ceremonies is because I am not sure what the message of ANZAC day is. I like the idea that we are all getting together to say “never again”, but I am not sure that is true. I would be happy with “only in the direst of need” but I'm not even sure I can rely on that. Many of the VIPS at these events look like they would be only too happy to send soldiers off to kill if it would enhance their vote

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the New Zealand Army. I think our armed forces are pretty good, as far as armies go. I've been told that New Zealand has a reputation for being able to get the job done with the minimum of fuss and without the need for excessive amounts of expensive gear. I've been told we have a reputation for developing good community relations, and that our soldiers are noted for being as quick to whip out a guitar as a gun (maybe the New Zealand Police could learn something here). Having a high proportion of Maori is probably helpful in Pacific peace keeping operations, where most of our army's work is done. My problem is with the ambiguous symbolism of ANZAC Day.

I heard someone from the RSA commenting on National Radio that one of the reasons for the increasing attendance at ANZAC Day events is the coverage it gets from Maori TV. MTS has led the way in giving in-depth and extensive coverage to events of national importance such as ANZAC Day and Waitangi Day. I guess it's no surprise that Maori have a particular regard for ANZAC Day – the 28th (Maori) Battalion was internationally reknowned for its fierce bravery and the number of its soldiers who were decorated. Fighting in war, said Apirana Ngata, was the price of citizenship. As if the loss of lands and political independence was not price enough.

Even so, many young Maori came home from war, sometimes physically maimed, often psychologically scarred, to find their lands under the ownership of Pakeha farmers and their people still being treated as second class citizens. Perhaps that broken promise is one reason why it is so important for many Maori communities to remember and reaffirm that sacrifice, and why the mean-spirited racism that remains so wide spread in New Zealand society rankles so.

ANZAC Day is important for us all though, not just for Maori. In particular it is a day to reflect on the sacrifices of those who go to war on our behalf, and those they kill and maim in our name. This seems particularly important today, when New Zealand has soldiers serving in two imperial wars – in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It is vitally important that we continue to ask why they are there. We owe it to the soldiers who serve there, and to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan who may be dying as you read this.

In particular we cannot allow the claim of security to prevent us from continuing to ask what our troops are up to. The Prime Minister, and the Army, are happy to trot out Willie Apiata as propaganda but they continue to stonewall on the real questions about what our troops are up to over there. We know that US troops have been involved in numerous cases of atrocities in Iraq, from prison torture to the murder of civilians. We know of these because the stories have been leaked. I am not saying that New Zealand troops have ever been involved in such atrocities, but simply that we would probably never know if they had.

Western armies learned a huge lesson from the invasion of Vietnam: that controlling the media needs to be made a high priority in any military operation. That the lesson has been learned is readily apparent in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the media has been bought off with the trinkets that come from collaboration. Here in Aotearoa , for example, the media seems largely content as long as it is fed with nice photos every once in a while. It has become a domesticated dog.

Apart from the most obvious one, however, the lesson that has NOT been learned from Vietnam is the self-defeating nature of working with drug-funded war lords. Professor Peter Dale Scott has written an excellent analysis of CIA involvement with the Afghani opium trade – a trade almost destroyed by the Taliban but enjoying a massive resurgence under the Northern Alliance (Hat tip Rob Ueberfeldt). As in Vietnam and South America, the CIA has not been actively involved in the drug trade so much as protecting the shipments of key allies in order to secure their cooperation. It is a dangerous game and fuels further instability in the region.

In the end, I think ANZAC Day is important for us as a nation. I hope it is a way to avoid the kind of militaristic jingoism that seems so apparent in the USA. Whether people chose to attend or not attend the public ceremonies, let us make it a day for us all to remember those who fought, to reflect on the terrible things that people do to each other in war and to reaffirm our commitment as a nation to working to decrease its likelihood.