Editorials on Syria

April 29th, 2013 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

The United States and the international community have to respond to a suspected nerve gas attack by Syrian government forces on civilians in Aleppo.

If the attack is confirmed – and it seems likely that it has happened – President Bashar al-Assad’s regime cannot be allowed to get away with this atrocity.

The trouble is there are no good solutions, just a variety of different intensity bad ones.

The difficulty for the West is that any imaginable military response is dangerously complicated. Even a no-fly zone over Syria, which would work to the obviously military advantage of the rebels battling Assad’s forces, cannot be easily enforced.

Assad is believed to have 600 fixed surface-to-air missile sites and about 300 mobile units, some of which would survive any first strike by US cruise missiles or planes flying from the Royal Air Force base in Cyprus. Putting Assad’s anti-aircraft capability out of action could be difficult and costly.

Most can be destroyed easily enough, but enough would survive to take down some aircraft. However if drones are used, the loss of life to US or NATO forces could be minimised.

If the chemical attack is confirmed, Assad has to go. Any regime which carries out nerve gas attacks on its own civilian population has lost all pretence of legitimacy.

The trouble is the alternatives are not overly appealing.

The Dom Post urges caution:

Barack Obama warned Syria that if it used nerve gas against its people it would “cross a red line”. The president meant that if the Assad regime was guilty of such a war crime, the United States would have to do something.

And now the evidence is mounting that Assad might have used sarin. And so now the president is in a difficult position, largely of his own making.

It would be easy to scorn Mr Obama over this. It would be easy to interpret his hyper-caution as shillyshallying and even cowardice. It would be easy to demand he stick to his word and start bombing. Predictably, some senior American politicians are now urging him to do so.

I don’t think he should bomb, but I think he was stupid to talk about a red line, and not be prepared for what to do if it is crossed.

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The Press on open road speed limits

April 1st, 2013 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

For as long as many people can remember, the open-road speed limit for driving in this country has not changed. It has not increased significantly since the late 1960s when it was raised, under the old imperial system, from 55 miles per hour to 60mph – the equivalent of 96kmh, so not significantly different than the 100kmh that applies today on highways and motorways.

Umm, that is missing out a big chunk of history. The open road limit may have been 60 miles per hours, but in 1973 due to oil shocks, it dropped to 80 km/hr or 50 miles/hr.

It was only in 1986 it went to 100 km/hr.

So far from the open road limit rarely changing, the changes have been:

  • 1962 – from 50 mph to 55 mph
  • 1969 – from 55 mph to 60 mph
  • 1973 – from 60 mph to 50 mph or 80 kmh
  • 1986 – from 80 kmh to 100 kmh

Consider the cars that Kiwis were driving when the speed limit was last raised.

There is a world of difference between the engineering and safety standards of 21st-century cars and the likes of the Morris Minor, the original Mini, the Ford Cortina, the Holden Kingswood, the Rover 2000 and the Hillman Imp. Road engineering, too, has improved during those decades. Seen in this context, a proposal to raise the limit by only 10kmh on a relatively small number of top roads can be seen as very modest.

The difference in car safety and engineering is massive.

The speed limit is a maximum, not a target, and the rules – so often observed mainly in the breach – state that people should drive at a speed under the limit that is appropriate to the road, traffic, weather and other conditions.

If the speed limit is increased on engineered motorways, this should not be taken as an indication to drive at 110km on the open road or rural highways, where a 110kmh speed limit would not be appropriate.

Yep – drive the the conditions. Sometimes that will be 110 km/h and sometimes 70 km/h.

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Lame, even for Peters

March 25th, 2013 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

By Winston Peters’ admittedly not very high standards the questions he raised in Parliament this week about alleged fraud and corruption in the earthquake recovery were terribly thin stuff.

If they were intended to embarrass the Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee, they were so lacking in specifics the minister easily brushed them off.

Even if, as is more likely, they were intended for no more elevated purpose than to get Peters’ name into the news and along the way to make a casual smear and raise vague conspiratorial suggestions of corruption, they were not up to much.

They never are, but I agree these allegations were even lamer than most.

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The Press editorial on housing

March 1st, 2013 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

Getting a clear and accurate picture of the housing market in Christchurch since the earthquakes is not easy.

Anecdotal accounts of a shortage of houses available to rent or buy and of rocketing prices abound, but there have been few hard figures about the wider reality.

The problem with this is that alarmist talk risks generating its own reality and will certainly spread unnecessary despondency.

That would be a pity for an investigation, published by The Press this week, shows that in fact, while the housing market in Christchurch has become more competitive and rents and prices have risen affecting low-income families in particular, talk of a general “housing crisis” is not borne out. …

The suggestion by some that a few desperate cases of hardship represented a wider crisis was not accurate.

The best way to help with the rental challenges is to get more houses built.

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Editorials on Chch schools

February 19th, 2013 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

The big reduction in the number of schools being forced to close or merge, announced by Education Minister Hekia Parata yesterday, is more than welcome. It ends the anxiety of the many Christchurch people who faced their most cherished community asset being torn from them or drastically altered, reduces pupil and parent fears and gives teachers more certainty about their jobs.

The Government should be congratulated for at last properly consulting people about the plan and for taking heed of concerns. Even greater congratulations should go to the schools, parents and supporters for gathering the facts and ensuring that the Government took them aboard. This was a demonstration of people power at its constructive best.

There is nothing as good as winning an argument by having the facts on your side.

Now it emerges that much of that outpouring was avoidable had the Ministry of Education built its plans on sure facts and consulted more effectively before the wholesale announcement. Had it done so, the first plan would have been something like that now proposed and would not have hit the city like a load of lead. People would have been much more accepting of change because they would have been informed about its need and contributed to its detail.

It is clear the original proposals were not just communicated badly, but were in some cases based on faulty info. The Herald touches on this also:

The outcry that greeted the announcement of the plan in September made its revision inevitable. The revised version appeared yesterday. Instead of closures and mergers of schools across the city the closures now appear to be confined to areas worst hit by the earthquakes or where rolls had been in steepest decline.

While there is anguish in any school that has to close – and the date has been set sooner for them under the revised plan – some of them had to go. The city’s schools had a combined capacity for about 5000 more pupils than attended them before the earthquakes and its school-age population had dropped by a further 4300 by July last year.

It is hard to argue that nothing should change at all, based on the surplus of 9,300 places.

If the original plan had been confined to those sorts of areas it would probably not have incurred the wrath and derision it received. But somewhere in the higher echelons of education, the earthquake was seen as an opportunity to redesign schooling as we have known it in this country. The whole of Christchurch was to be a template for “something different and innovative to support improved outcomes in education”.

The ministry’s document talked of “shared campuses” for everything from early childhood to tertiary education, and educational institutions that would comprise not just schools but “dental clinics, doctors’ surgeries, mental health and other support services such as counsellors, social workers and therapists”.

To this end, the planners hoped to knock down and rebuild much more public property than had suffered serious damage.

The original plan was based on the “ideal” but failed to take account of how disruptive change can be. The revised plan appears to be based on necessity where change is minimised unless there is little alternative.

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The Press on Bain report

December 13th, 2012 at 9:41 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

Collins’ announcement explaining why she had sought the review was candid, even sharp, but in the circumstances reasonable. The fact that she has had Binnie’s report since September had raised expectations that the matter would be put before the Cabinet and a decision announced before Christmas. It has also become well known, and has not been denied, that the report is favourable to Bain. The reasons for the delay needed to be explained and Collins did so in a characteristically forthright style.

It is worth noting that Collins did not seek publicity. It was in response to media inquiries that her statement was released as to why she sought a peer review. The announcement of Fisher was not made public, but inevitably leaked out.

Binnie’s report, she said, appeared to contain “assumptions based on incorrect facts, . . . showed a misunderstanding of New Zealand law . . . and lacked a robustness of reasoning used to justify its conclusions”. Binnie, perhaps unused from his lengthy term on Canada’s highest court to such direct comment, was stung by Collins’ remarks into responding. It was an unwise move.

By convention, judges never comment on their decisions once they are delivered. The decisions are taken to contain all the facts and reasoning required to be able to speak for themselves. Binnie is no longer a judge, of course, but in this procedure he is acting as one. Once he had delivered his report to Collins in September the function for which he was hired was over and he should have remained aloof from anything that ensued, whatever it was. It is unseemly and undignified of him to get into the mud and the dust of the political arena in the way he has done.

I think his response was a massive mistake. If he has confidence in his report, he should let that speak for itself.

If nothing else, it raises misgivings about his judgment. Fourteen long paragraphs in response to a terse couple of sentences from the minister looks weirdly disproportionate. In addition, questionable statements Binnie makes, particularly concerning the alleged views of the Privy Council on Bain’s guilt or innocence, look faulty enough to suggest that Collins’ doubts about the report are well-founded.

Again, I agree.

Collins said yesterday she was considering releasing the report along with the review of it this week. She says that both should be released together. While that would be ideal, she should go ahead and release Binnie’s report (both the original and the two subsequent versions that Binnie has given her unsolicited) whether the review is ready or not. The tumult is not going to die down, and rumour and surmise will fill the vacuum if she delays.

I understand there is a reasonable chance both the Binnie report/s and the Fisher report will be released tomorrow.

Also of note is this exchange in question time:

CHARLES CHAUVEL (Labour) to the Minister of Justice: What are the specific “assumptions” based on “incorrect facts” demonstrating some “misunderstanding of New Zealand law” that she alleges are contained in the report of Justice Binnie concerning the application by Mr Bain for compensation for wrongful conviction and imprisonment?

Hon JUDITH COLLINS (Minister of Justice) : I stated in my media release that “My concerns are broadly that the report appeared to contain assumptions based on incorrect facts, and showed a misunderstanding of New Zealand law.” Prior to giving examples, I need to give just a little bit of context to this. I can advise the House that an independent peer review of the first Binnie advice is being done by the Hon Robert Fisher QC, and I am considering the public request made by Mr Bain’s supporters to release both these reports—or advice to me—before Cabinet has made its decision. One of the things I am considering is whether or not it is going to be in Mr Bain’s interests or in the interests of justice to do so. But in relation to the examples sought, there are many. I will give the House two of those. The first is relying on incorrect understanding of what has been given in evidence. In this case, Justice Binnie asserts that a named scientist testified at the first trial that he had chemically enhanced the prints and later sought to resile from this. The reference to chemical enhancement was an error on a label attached to a fingerprint, and this was explained as such by the named scientist at the retrial. A second example is in relation to assumptions as to the correctness of submissions on the law. Justice Binnie appears to have assumed to be correct Mr Karam’s submission that the adverse inferences should be drawn against the Crown case on the basis of evidence that is no longer available. This is incompatible with the onus of proof being on Mr Bain in this particular case, because this is, in fact, a request for Cabinet to use its discretion, and that is very clearly wrong.

Again, the reports will be interesting.

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The Press on Bain

December 5th, 2012 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

The report has not been made public but it has been widely reported that retired Canadian judge Justice Ian Binnie found Bain was innocent, on the balance of probabilities, of the murders and that he should receive compensation. Supporters of Bain have suggested that Collins dislikes this result and is shopping around for an opinion she agrees with.

That is unfair. The decision on compensation will be a highly contentious and political one, whichever way it goes. If she has misgivings about the report she has been given, it is entirely proper that Collins should seek further advice before she makes any recommendation to her Cabinet colleagues.

Some people have suggested that the second report is because there is some damning criticism of govt agencies in the first report that the Govt wants to hide. But as far as I know, there is no question that the Binnie report will be released. Just, that the Fisher report will also be released.

The task of assessing this was, surprisingly, outsourced by an earlier Minister of Justice, Simon Power, to Canada’s Justice Binnie. The aim was to get an opinion from someone entirely outside the New Zealand justice system but it was odd, particularly in light of the fact that New Zealand had not long before ended one of the last vestiges of colonial practice by abolishing final appeals to the Privy Council in London. There are few people who would dissent from the view that it was right to establish the Supreme Court and make the entire justice system a domestic one.

To seek a foreign opinion in one of the most celebrated cases of the century looks like a strange and unjustified loss of confidence in the integrity of those who serve in that system. It is difficult to believe that it was impossible to find a retired judge within the country with the intellect and the integrity to be able to deliver a sound decision. That is, in fact, what Collins will be seeking from the man to whom she has now referred the matter, Robert Fisher QC, a former judge of the High Court and widely recognised as one of New Zealand’s pre-eminent legal minds.

The 73 year old Binnie did serve on the Canadian Supreme Court, but it is worth noting he didn’t serve on any lower court before that appointment. That means he would probably never have presided over a criminal trial, and his background is business and corporate law – not criminal law. That doesn’t mean his report is not credible or thorough or sound – but it is worth noting that not all retired judges are equally experienced in all areas.

My default position is that the Govt should go with Binnie’s recommendation. But that is contingent on the quality of his report. By that, I don’t mean his conclusion – but whether all the evidence was considered, that the report complied with the terms of reference, that natural justice was followed etc. I can’t wait to read both the Binnie and Fisher reports.

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The Press on Leveson inquiry

December 3rd, 2012 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

The British tabloid press at its worst has never been a pretty thing to contemplate.

Hyper-competitive, unscrupulous, concerned more to get something that might be tricked up as a “scoop” no matter who got trampled on in the process, its unlovely ways have often been deplored. When British Prime Minister David Cameron appointed a Court of Appeal judge, Lord Justice Leveson, to conduct an inquiry into the operation of newspapers and to suggest how they might be better regulated, it was the seventh inquiry in 70 years to traverse much the same ground. When the inquiry was set up the papers’ reputation could hardly have been lower and nine months of hearings, in which some 337 witnesses were heard and 300 more gave statements, have done nothing to improve it. Despite all that, Leveson’s principal recommendation, for tougher regulation supported by law, is unlikely to be acted upon, and for very good reason.

I think there will be tougher regulation, but I don’t think it will be statutory regulation.

At the end of it all, Leveson found one of the central allegations that had been made – that Cameron had become too cosy with the Murdoch empire and had tailored policy to suit it – was not made out. He further found much of the press excellent. But the judge also found Britain’s system of newspaper self-regulation weak and inadequate and he proposed a new, much stronger one, ostensibly independent and voluntary but in fact coercive, with powers to fine heavily and, most crucially, backed by statute.

In NZ broadcasters can be fined, but not print media.

Direct state control over newspapers has not existed in England for more than 300 years. The idea of putting at risk the hard-won freedoms developed over centuries because of the excesses of a few tabloids is rightly regarded as anathema. To his credit, Cameron immediately spotted the dangers and while accepting Leveson’s findings, he has rejected that part of his report. A strong and effective regulatory body is undoubtedly needed, but not one established by the state, no matter how far removed from the immediate grasp of politicians. The practically inevitable risk of further political meddling is too great.

I agree.

New Zealand does not have the tabloid rabble that London does. It is also fortunate in having in the Press Council an effective body to deal with complaints. A few months ago, though, the Law Commission, fretting about alleged problems with the web, proposed a new statutory body to regulate all media. It is not a good idea, nor is it necessary, and with luck it will go no further.

I agree there should not be a statutory body. However I do think the idea of one combined industry self-regulator for print, broadcast and online is sensible and the best way to stop state regulation would be for media to proactively start work towards a combined self-regulator with no gaps as currently exists.

UPDATE: Sean Plunket writes in the Dom Post:

This isn’t to say there is no bias in New Zealand media. There most certainly is at an individual and institutional level. Most often, it is unconscious or unwitting, incredibly hard to positively identify and virtually impossible to eradicate.

To attempt to do so by writing a new set of rules and regulations would be a waste of time. It would hamstring the majority of genuine journalists doing their best to inform their readers/viewers/listeners of the opinions and activities of our politicians.

Impartiality has always, and ever will be, an aspirational goal for the media but kidding ourselves that some code of conduct can ever actually achieve it is a vain hope.

Events in Britain, where media bias is generally accepted, are far more concerning. The issues there are not about how the fourth estate presents the news but how it gathers it. In the case of Rupert Murdoch’s empire it would seem the catch cry was “by any means necessary”.

I’m happy to say that in my 25 plus years in New Zealand media it is not the prevalent attitude here. I don’t know any Kiwi colleague who has bribed, hacked or blackmailed to get a story. The teapot tapes suggest some of us aren’t above a bit of covert surveillance but it is most certainly the exception rather than the rule.

The Leveson inquiry showed us that attitudes were different among a large sector of British media but despite the fact that I find that abhorrent, I think Mr Cameron is doing the right thing.

I have not detected any great enthusiasm for Leveson’s recommendation to have a statutory basis for media regulation.

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Editorials all say early vote was a mistake

November 21st, 2012 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

All three major daily editorials say the early leadership vote was a mistake made under pressure.

The NZ Herald editorial yesterday:

… if he imagines the vote will see off a challenge from David Cunliffe he is already disappointed.

A more experienced leader would have dismissed any suggestion he should try to “call out” a challenge with an early vote. When a leader wins – as usually happens the first time – the question does not go away. It merely leaves the party divided and ensures the discontented faction will choose its moment to make another bid.

The Press today:

If David Shearer wishes to retain the leadership of the parliamentary Labour Party he should put aside any thoughts he may have for a surfing holiday this summer.

Yesterday, he obtained the support of the party caucus in a wholly unnecessary vote of confidence that he called. He also demoted his rival, David Cunliffe. His problem, however, is not his support in caucus but rather that in the wider party.

Since the weekend, Shearer’s supporters have been talking up his performance at the conference and it is true that the keynote speech Shearer gave on Sunday went down well amongst the faithful. But the bar had not been set very high. Preaching to a roomful of one’s most committed activists (and those who turn up for conferences are by definition the hard-core of the party) is not much of a test of a leader. Furthermore, no-one has ever doubted Shearer’s capacity to read a fully scripted, exhaustively rehearsed speech. It is his performance off the cuff that is the worry.

The performance at the post caucus press conference was not impressive and would have done little to reassure the doubters.

Because a leadership vote in February is mandatory, Shearer’s call for a vote of confidence yesterday was unnecessary. He was driven no doubt by the urge to be seen to do something. He also might have hoped he could put the question of a challenge behind him. Shearer, and his caucus supporters, want the matter over, but it is unlikely anything before February is going to end it.

There are 76 days to go before the real vote.

The Dominion Post editorial:

David Shearer has been reconfirmed as leader of the Labour Party. Given that even his caucus critics declared in advance their intention to vote for him that is hardly surprising.

However, far from being the resounding victory claimed by Mr Shearer’s cheerleaders, yesterday’s caucus vote served only to lay bare the deep divisions within the party. Those divisions are between the pragmatic, centrist MPs such as Phil Goff, Annette King and Trevor Mallard who have installed Mr Shearer as their standard bearer, and the wild-eyed idealists who forced a rule change through the party conference at the weekend enabling caucus malcontents to force a leadership vote in which party members and unions will have the final say.

It is more than about the leadership.

The reason Mr Shearer has not scrapped some of Labour’s sillier 2011 election promises is now apparent. Labour is in the midst of a power struggle between those who recognise that spending promises have to be paid for and those who do not understand that capital and skills are mobile. Increase taxes beyond a certain point and both will depart for greener pastures.

Neither yesterday’s vote nor the demotion of Mr Shearer’s putative challenger David Cunliffe to the backbenches resolves the question of Labour’s leadership. The real contest, if there is to be one, will come in February on ground not of Mr Shearer’s choosing.

Then, just 13 or 14 of Labour’s 34 MPs will be able to force a party-wide vote if they choose to.

If a party-wide vote is triggered, I don’t think Shearer would contest it. How could you? Imagine how hobbled you would be in the House having to take on the PM, while fighting for your political life. If a vote is triggered in February, then I’d say it would be Cunliffe vs Robertson.

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Media on Shearer

November 15th, 2012 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Transtasman this week said:

Having demonstrated how not to have a leader of the opposition, the Labour Party is now demonstrating how not to have a coup to get rid of him. Watch and learn.

For the not having a leader of the opposition bit, the party has pretty much covered all the options this year, with only one exception: party leader David Shearer has never rounded on his party critics and told them to go and do something very difficult to themselves. His response has been more a hurt and injured look. This is novel, but it hasn’t worked. So now Labour, or some elements anyway, are endeavouring to get him to go quietly by using a Labour-aligned, anonymously written blog.

For those who have lives, it’s called The Standard, and it is written by Labour Party members who are also public servants, hence the anonymity. It’s mostly a poisonous waste of time, although if you want an insight into the thought processes of Labour-supporting public servants, it is quite an education.

All this meant was would be challengers David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson had to endorse their leader in public. It was a
highly qualified level of support.

Claiming they have “no immediate plans to challenge the leader” about as lukewarm as you can get.

I think some of the authors also work for unions!

Also worth listening to former Herald Editor Gavin Ellis on Radio NZ Nine to Noon. He says that The Standard authors were obviously used by factions in the Labour Party who want to see a change in the leadership.

And finally The Press editorial:

The loudest muttering against Shearer is being led by bloggers and columnists from the liberal Left. For the moment the caucus appears loyal, all possible contenders insisting they are 100 per cent behind him. That, however, should be regarded with considerable scepticism.

For a start, when Shearer got himself into a horrendous tangle with unsubstantiated allegations against Key over the Government Communications Security Bureau fuss, his colleagues took an awful long time to come to his defence. Further, if any plot to unseat him were going on, the plotters would obviously stay clandestine for as long as they could.

A factor inhibiting a coup is the lack of an alternative with predominating support. Of two possible contenders, David Cunliffe lost against Shearer last time and is widely regarded as too satisfied with himself by half and Grant Robertson is, for now at least, a Shearer loyalist.

It was lack of an obvious successor that kept Phil Goff in the leadership until the last election, but not many in Labour would regard that as an entirely happy precedent.

What surprises me is they gave Goff three years, yet some appear unwilling to give Shearer even 18 months.

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The Press on CCC

November 12th, 2012 at 9:26 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

The desire expressed recently by Mayor Bob Parker for Christchurch City Council to take back more control of the city’s affairs echoes the feelings of many Christchurch people. The mayor spoke of the matter two weeks ago, when he said he was looking forward to the council regaining control of the central business district from the Central Christchurch Development Unit “sooner rather than later”. While acknowledging the important role the Government had in the rebuild, the mayor said: “We think [the city centre rebuild] is something that should be driven by the people in the city and council.”

An understandable desire, but it is worth pointing out that most Councils are equipped to deal with one or two major projects at a time. Dealing with a rebuild of an entire city centre is to be blunt well beyond the resources and capability of a city council.

The greatest interference with the council’s functions, though, came from the creation of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority as a government department and then later the CCDU as a unit within Cera to plan the reconstruction of the central city. This, according to Parker, has left the council’s elected representatives feeling “politically impotent” and accounts for the dysfunction (“so-called dysfunction”, according to Parker) on the council.

Here, Parker has got his analysis backwards. The creation of Cera did not cause ructions among otherwise efficient and smoothly functioning councillors to erupt. Cera was necessary for several compelling reasons. But one of them, surely, was a fear, among other things, that councillors would not be able to put aside their differences to face the mammoth task before the city without petty distractions.

Whatever the cause, councillors certainly proceeded to live down to expectations when in the midst of the calamity, and egged on by irresponsible outside elements, they plunged the depths of mindless backbiting and bitchery in an ultimately trivial row over the chief executive’s salary.

Exactly. The Council came close to being dismissed for their inability to function, as the backbiting was so extreme. Things have improved, but a long way to go.

Power over the city’s affairs will of course eventually be returned entirely to the council. So far as the CCDU is concerned, Parker is holding discussions with Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee. In order for him to be able to make a persuasive case, however, the council must show that it is capable of doing the job. Whether that is the case yet is far from clear. It is alarming, for instance, to hear that it is in danger of losing its accreditation as a building consents authority because of 17 identified shortcomings.

I think the saying is look after your own backyard first.

The fact the CEO thinks he can grant an extra 12 days paid leave to all Council staff without even informing the Mayor and Council of his intentions in advance, shows that there is still a fairly high degree of dysfunctionality.

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The Press on GCSB

October 19th, 2012 at 11:06 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

In what is turning out to be the drawn-out saga of the extradition of Kim Dotcom, the role of the Government Communications Security Bureau may be a minor irrelevance, but it appears it is about to claim its first scalp.

A senior official is reported to have been placed on leave while an internal review is conducted at the bureau. Whether the official is in any way responsible for the acknowledged errors made by the GCSB, and if so what sanction, if any, there should be, will no doubt be determined by the review and, if they are found to be necessary, any subsequent employment hearings.

In the meantime, however, it is clear that there are indications that all is not well within the organisation.

There are four or five ways in which the GCSB hasn’t performed up to the standard expected. They are:

  • The original flawed legal analysis that they Dotcom was not a permanent resident
  • The lack of a clear process for acting on requests from Police
  • The resistance to change its view on the legality of the Dotcom interception for many months
  • Not taking immediate action to inform the Minister and Inspector-General when they first became aware of uncertainty over the legality
  • Taking two weeks to inform the Minister of the brief mention of Dotcom in a powerpoint presentation to him (It should have taken two hours not two weeks)

To his credit, Prime Minister John Key, the minister in charge of the GCSB, has not attempted to conceal its shortcomings. Unlike the normal practice when intelligence organisations make errors – blanket refusal to comment – Key has shown a level of candour unprecedented either in New Zealand or elsewhere. He has also ordered reviews to get to the bottom of the GCSB’s difficulties and install fresh oversight within the organisation.

If there are systemic problems in the GCSB they will not have happened overnight but, given the importance of its work, they must be fixed quickly.

My understanding is that the roasting has been of the superchargrilled variety.

The editorial is right that under Key, the level of candour has been unprecedented. Not just with the issue, but I recall that with the SAS in Afghanistan the previous Govt would often refuse to even state if they were out of the country at a particular point in time.

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Good journalism

September 19th, 2012 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

A good example of the investigative journalism we need more of in NZ. Martin van Beynen at The Press reports:

The construction manager of the deadly Canterbury Television building stole the identity of a professional engineer and faked an engineering degree, an investigation has revealed.

Gerald Shirtcliff, now 67, supervised the construction of the CTV building which was finished in about October 1987. It collapsed on February 22 last year, taking the lives of 115 people, when Christchurch was hit by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake.

The Canterbury earthquakes royal commission has been told of a number of construction defects with the building, although Shirtcliff denies he had much to do with the site.

In evidence to the commission last month he claimed to be a “graduate engineer” and that he had been a supervisor on construction projects in South Africa. Inquiries by The Press, in Christchurch,  suggest these assertions are misleading.

Shirtcliff, who was educated at Rongotai College and left school to work in a Wellington bank, has lived off and on in Australia since about 1970 under the name William Anthony Fisher. …

A month-long investigation by The Press shows Shirtcliff in 1970 stole the identity of an English engineer called William Anthony Fisher, with whom he worked in South Africa in 1968 and 1969. Shirtcliff has lived as William Fisher in Australia for over 25 years, and now resides in Brisbane, driving a late-model Mercedes and enjoying a spacious house and a $200,000 motor launch.

When Shirtcliff left South Africa towards the end of 1969 to settle in Sydney he took on Fisher’s identity including his birthplace, birthdate and his bachelor of engineering from the University of Sheffield.

Shirtcliff then used the real Will Fisher’s BEng to gain entry into a masters programme at the University of New South Wales in 1971 and also to become a member of the Australian Institute of Engineers in 1972. As “Will Fisher” he was awarded a master of engineering science degree in highway engineering in April 1974.

He later worked as an engineer for a Sydney firm, then called MacDonald, Wagner and Priddle (to become Connell Wagner and then Aurecon), before returning to New Zealand in the mid-80s, to work under his Shirtcliff name.

In New Zealand he purported to be a “registered” engineer and at one time a “chartered” engineer.

Shirtcliff used his new identity on company documents and also to try to avoid extradition to New Zealand on the fraud allegations. He spent a week in a Brisbane jail in 2003 before conceding he was actually Gerald Shirtcliff.

A fascinating discovery which would have taken a lot of detective work.

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The cost of alcohol

August 26th, 2012 at 11:12 am by David Farrar

Eric Crampton inserts some facts in a Press op-ed:

I do not particularly care what the jury decides on who is or is not a wowser. But I work with and care about the numbers around alcohol policy. And the impression most readers would get from the latest reporting in The Press is a bit at odds with, well, reality.

Let us begin perhaps with Jennie Connor’s citing of “a Canadian study” on the effects of minimum pricing. Can a 10 per cent increase in the minimum price of alcohol really reduce total alcohol consumption by 16 per cent? No. …

Across-the-board increases in the minimum price of alcohol have far smaller effects: a 10 per cent price increase reduces aggregate consumption by only about 3.4 per cent, as is made reasonably clear in Auld’s paper.

But the bigger mis-use of numbers follows:

I was a bit more surprised to read of the new commissioned BERL report on the health costs of alcohol in Canterbury. …

BERL here replicated work done in Australia by Collins and Lapsley (2008). But where Collins and Lapsley added up all the costs imposed by those disorders where alcohol makes things worse and subtracted from that total all the cost savings from those disorders where alcohol reduces costs, BERL simply erased any beneficial effects of alcohol for disorders including ischaemic heart disease, cholelithiasis, heart failure, stroke and hypertension. …

I received the paper Wednesday courtesy of the CDHB. And BERL, at footnote 14, reports they’ve done the same thing again: “The Collins and Lapsley fractions indicate some alcohol use may be beneficial for some conditions. We concentrate on harmful drug use, and assume zero fractions for such conditions.”

So their measure of the costs of alcohol to the Canterbury health system relies on an assumption that there can be no health benefits from alcohol – an assumption that runs contrary to the weight of international evidence. Assuming one’s conclusions is hardly proper method.

To put it more bluntly the BERL paper is useless as a public policy tool.  Measuring harm without measuring benefits is something zealots do, but we expect better in scientific papers.

Crampton concludes:

How often do you read that problem drinking among 15-24 year olds was no different in 2006/2007 than in 1996/1997 before the change in the alcohol purchase age?

Or that per capita alcohol consumption is down substantially since 1991? Othat light drinkers have about a 14%reduction in their chance of dying from any cause than people who never drink, correcting for the host of other health-related behaviours that are usually given as reasons for ignoring the health benefits of moderate drinking?

Be skeptical of the moral crisis around alcohol.

Amazing to see the comments at The Press attacking Eric personally or attacking things he never said. Very few able to engage on the actual issue.

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The Press knights Owen Glenn

July 24th, 2012 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press reports:

LIVELY DISCUSSION: The Press deputy editor Ric Stevens, left, interviews Sir Owen Glenn at a Literary Liaison event in Christchurch last night.

Businessman and philanthropist Sir Owen Glenn came to Christchurch to promote his new book last night but his charitable work became the focus.

Last time I checked Owen Glenn was not a knight. In 2008 he was given ONZM, but that is two levels below a knighthood.

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The Press on league tables

June 22nd, 2012 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press reports:

There is a tinge of alarmism, even something slightly hysterical, in the opposition of the education establishment to the publication of the performance of primary schools as measured by national standards.

Unions, teachers and principals have been united for some time in trying to have such information withheld from public scrutiny. …

The answer to all the argument over national standards information is not to try to suppress it, but rather to release it along with as much other information as possible to try to give an accurate assessment of schools’ performance on which parents can safely rely.

Information about secondary schools’ National Certificate of Educational Achievement performance has been made public and the media have made league tables of them for several years now without any serious adverse consequences.

There is no reason why statistics on national standards should be treated any differently.

The response to “bad data” should be “good data” not censorship. Ideally we should have an online schools database like in Australia, where parents can look up and compare schools over a range of data.


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The Press on ACC

June 15th, 2012 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

Some change at the ACC is plainly necessary. The row between Pullar and the organisation intensified when ACC accidentally sent her an email that included files containing confidential information about many other ACC clients.

It has since emerged that such inadvertent disclosure of private information has occurred on a number of occasions.

Given the amount of highly sensitive information the ACC holds about individuals, it seems extraordinary that, so many years after email became the most common means of communication, the organisation still cannot manage it without this kind of blunder.

Other government entities that hold confidential private information – the Inland Revenue Department and Work and Income, for instance – seem to be able to do so.

Some comments made in messages between ACC personnel handling Pullar’s case have also emerged that indicate a kind of cavalier dismissiveness towards her.

These remarks have understandably been seized on as reflecting ACC’s general attitude towards its claimants.

There is no evidence that this is true but even if the comments are not at all widespread, they are deeply unprofessional and should not be tolerated.

Absolutely. I am amazed the person who made them is still working there.

Whatever other shortcomings might have occurred during his chairmanship, Judge has done that. ACC’s net deficit last financial year was reduced from $10.3 billion to $6.7 billion and it is on target to meet its legal obligation to be fully funded by 2019.

Financial viability is crucial if ACC is to survive as a no- fault accident compensation system and meet its obligations to claimants.

It must be run as a sound business. It is right, for instance, that claims are examined rigorously so that they may be dealt with fairly.

Any “change of culture” that would turn ACC into some sort of soft-hearted arm of the social-welfare industry, as some critics appear to imply, would be a backward step.

As an employer I endorse this also.

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The Press on Christchurch

May 14th, 2012 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

It will now be possible to consider Dalziel’s criticisms of the recovery process – and they have been many and seem to encompass just about everyone involved – the mayor, the minister, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority – without the thought they are designed to advance any designs on the mayoralty.

And the Council. Dalziel has been pretty relentlessly critical of everyone and everything.

Whether, if Labour were to win power in 2014, Dalziel would be a good choice to take Gerry Brownlee’s job as the minister for earthquake recovery is highly debatable. It is, in any case, a slightly unambitious goal. By the time it could come about, more than 2 1/2 years from now, the hard political and financial decisions on earthquake recovery will largely have been taken. By that time, it must be hoped, the recovery will be well under way and any ministerial involvement will have become peripheral.

Indeed. In fact the big decisions should all be made by mid 2013 I hope.

While Dalziel has many commendable personal qualities – and her energy as a critic of what is being done has been indefatigable – whether she would be the right person for the job is doubtful. She has been a minister before, of course, and though she was competent enough she hardly shone in the role.

That is a bit unfair. While I don’t share her policies, Dalziel was actually an  effective Commerce Minister, and one of the better performing Labour Ministers.

 In addition, her well-signalled party-political partisanship could hinder her capacity to get on with others in a job that requires party politics to be put firmly aside. Her suggestion for some new layer of bureaucracy between the minister and Cera – as if more bureaucracy is what is required – also does not augur well.

I agree. Having the Minister appoint a board who supervise the CERA CEO seems bizarre. You have boards for commercial SOEs, not for government departments.

With Dalziel out of the running, attention can now turn to other possible contenders. While it may be a thankless job in many ways, it is also one of unprecedented opportunity and the incumbent Bob Parker shows no signs of having lost his appetite for it. At this early stage, talk inevitably centres on sitting councillors, and the names of Tim Carter, Peter Beck and Glenn Livingstone have been mentioned. All are very new to the council and their only mark of distinction so far is their inexperience in all the skills that will be needed in the next phase of Christchurch’s recovery. Neither they, nor indeed anyone else on the council, inspires much confidence as a future leader of the city and voters may be forgiven for hoping some better alternatives emerge before the election.

The Council obviously has bitter divisions. A new Mayor from one of those factions, will just compound the frictions. If people want an alternative to Bob Parker, they need someone not currently on Council who has proven leadership experience.

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Rating Councillors

April 11th, 2012 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Press has done a report card on the Christchurch City Councillors.

I think such report cards are a good thing, as the average resident does not follow Council business closely enough to gain an informed opinion of which Councillors are performing. It is of course just an subjective rating, but they give reasons. I do think however that the article should list which staffers did the ratings, in the interests of transparency.

I also think the way the Wellingtonian did it, is a good model. Rather than do ratings just from their staff, they assembled a panel and got them to rate the Councillors.

Anyway the ratings are:

  • Tim Carter B+
  • Yani Johanson B+
  • Glenn Livingstone B+
  • Sue Wells B
  • Claudia Reid B
  • Jamie Gough B
  • Ngaire Button C
  • Aaron Keown C
  • Bob Parker C
  • Jimmy Chen C-
  • Helen Broughton D+
  • Barry Corbett D
  • Sally Buck D

The Press plans to repeat the ratings before the October 2013 elections.

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The Press debate

November 3rd, 2011 at 8:34 am by David Farrar

I didn’t watch it, but saw John Pagani tweet:

Huge win for Goff tonight at the Press debate. One sided – he absolutely smashed it.

Sadly for John, he seems to be a minority of one. Fairfax’s Vernon Small who actually attended the debate wrote:

Who won?

On first and final impressions from someone typing madly in the front row?

Key had the audience eating out of his hand – a showman in top form.

A clear victory for the PM.

I presume Trevor Mallard won’t attack Vernon as a tool of the vast right wing conspiracy.

John Hartevelt tweeted:

A clear win to Key tonight. Proud that The Press hosted such a great debate.

Many people said the format was much better.

ZB’s Felix Marwick:

Calling tonight’s debate for Key. Goff undercut himself by not definitively answering the $ question

And the Herald’s Claire Trevett:

What a jolly Press debate that was. Both entertaining – Goff stood ground till Key Jerry McGuired him, good and hard.

I am deeply disturbed by Claire’s choice of metaphor.

Vernon Small goes further today:

If the first TVNZ debate was a narrow-points victory to Phil Goff, last night’s Press debate was not far short of a rout by John Key.

The next time John Pagani calls something a huge crushing win for Goff or Labour, I’m going to buy National win shares on iPredict!

Funnily enough when judging a debate, I tend to be harder on those whose arguments I agree with. The reason why is because I know thee arguments so well for “the right”, that I’m always thinking (or yelling at the screen) “You should have said this …..”

UPDATE: Danyl at Dim-Post notes:

Goff couldn’t respond. He couldn’t account for the $14 billion shortfall. Instead he prevaricated. He talked about asset sales. He talked about tax evasion. Key continued to press him, and Goff insisted we’d get a spreadsheet ‘soon’, which explained everything. Then he spent the final quarter of the debate insisting that he’d already explained where the money was coming from, while Key and the audience simply laughed at him.

It was a humiliating defeat. And totally unnecessary. Three-and-a-half weeks from the election and Labour’s leader can’t produce a credible budget.

I suspect we will see Labour’s costed budget later today or tomorrow. I also predict it will miraculously balance and show no extra borrowing needed. What will matter is whether Labour’s figures hold up to scrutny. Anyone can make a budget balance by just fiddling with assumptions, such as saying “Our policies are good for the economy, so we predict economic growth will be 05% higher which means this much more tax revenue”.

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The Press on Labour’s 1970s workplace policy

October 20th, 2011 at 8:25 am by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

The Labour Party claims its work and wages policy, which it released this week, will boost the country’s economic performance and generally provide a better future for workers. That is very unlikely. The policy’s strange mish-mash of bureaucratic centralised wage-setting, legislated higher minimum pay and repeal of some of the present Government’s liberalising workplace reforms has gruesome echoes of the unlovely 1970s. Far from being a forward-looking policy, as the Labour leader, Phil Goff, has declared it to be, it recalls policies long thought dead and buried.

The policy has been welcomed by unions, as well it might be. It could well have been written by them.

I shudder at the thought of a union being able to go to a group of mates appointed by Labour and get them to set terms and conditions for an entire industry. Employers, no matter what their size or location or profitability, will suddenly have to comply with the dictates of this new commission.

According to Goff, the policy would help stem the flow of people to Australia. Given that the effect of much of it would be to price some jobs out of existence, quite how it would do this is unclear. Labour still does not appear to understand that it cannot legislate its way to prosperity.

It’s a basic concept, but one which seems alien to them.

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The Press on Rena

October 10th, 2011 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press editorial:

As might have been expected, the Green Party has jumped on this incident to advance its campaign against exploration for oil in deep waters off New Zealand. This is just political opportunism. There can be no comparison between a properly run deep-sea drilling operation, far offshore and subject to rigorous environmental safeguards, and an accident in which a ship has hit a well-charted reef a few hundred metres off the coast. As the Prime Minister said, the only connection is that both are at sea.

How it hit such a well charted reef is yet to be determined. Hopefully there will be some accountability for what has happened.

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The Press on Labour’s earthquake policy

September 22nd, 2011 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press has an editorial on Labour’s earthquake recovery policy:

Labour’s proposals are, at this stage, not much more than a fine-sounding wishlist. As one red-zone resident noted, the plans were “about as useful as wallpaper”. This is largely driven by the party’s poor showing in opinion polls.

Wallpaper can be useful, to be fair.

Unless there is more substance that Labour has yet to announce, some of them would raise more problems than they would solve. It is also difficult to see how some of them could be made to work. The gaping hole in the proposals is the lack of any realistic assessment of their longer-term impact on the public finances. And while Labour’s leader, Phil Goff, was scornful of the capacity of a “market solution”, he appeared to be oblivious (or chose to ignore) the potentially huge, unintended consequences of ad-hoc interventionism.

A centrepiece of Labour’s plan is the proposal to spend $230 million on “affordable” sections that would be sold “at cost” to 1500 red-zone homeowners. This would, Labour says, control cost inflation among private developers. Quite how the government buying sections, instead of private interests, would control any inflation in the market is not explained. Also, “at cost” suggests that Labour would subsidise the price of the sections, which means a few fortunate buyers would get sections they could not otherwise afford at the expense of taxpayers.

The most notable flaw in this proposal, however, is that it does not explain how the lucky 1500 would be chosen out of 6000 or so who can no longer remain on their land. Whether they were chosen according to some stated criteria, by a lottery or selected by some other method, a host of inequities would be bound to arise.

Perhaps they would go to those who can prove they voted Labour?

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Jim: I’m still right

October 2nd, 2010 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

An interesting insight in The Press:

Jim is incredibly determined when it comes to chasing up issues for people. He can also be incredibly stubborn – on several occasions, he re-affirmed his (mistaken, in my opinion) belief that he could have been mayor and MP, had it not been for the earthquake.

Of course he could have been both. He could have done them both “standing on his head”  if I recall his quote correctly. And remain a party leader also.

But it looks like Jim may have lots of time to stand on his head – the latest Press poll has him at 20%, 16% behind Parker.

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Editorials on Labour’s GST exemption

September 29th, 2010 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Dominion Post is unimpressed:

Labour’s promise to remove GST from fresh fruit and vegetables reeks of desperation.

With his party languishing at 32 per cent in the latest Colmar Brunton poll – a formidable 22 points behind National – Labour leader Phil Goff’s desire for a circuit breaker is entirely understandable. However, that does not make his choice any less wrong-headed.

And the inconsistencies:

Mr Goff and his senior colleagues are experienced enough to know that to open the door for exemptions is to also open a can of worms.

They will be asked why those who buy their peas fresh should be favoured over those who buy them frozen – there is little, if any, difference in the health benefits they deliver.

They will be asked why the exemption should apply only to fruit and vegetables, and not to other elements of a healthy diet, such as fish and lean meat.

They will be asked why they do not provide for other exemptions to promote other activities that benefit society – removing GST from bicycles or solar panels, for example.

Most of all, they must pledge to also remove GST from condoms. Does Labour not care about herpes? Are they unconcerned over AIDs? Do they want to be responsible for tens of thousands of abortions, because they have not removed GST off condoms?

And The Press:

After spending more than two decades assiduously defending the integrity of the GST system it originally introduced, Labour has back-pedalled with its promise to scrap the tax on fresh fruit and vegetables. …

Despite Labour claims to the contrary, retailers have rightly warned that making fresh fruit and vegetables exempt would still compromise the simplicity of the system, which was one of its greatest virtues. This will inevitably lead to added compliance costs for many businesses and, in terms of monitoring or administering the GST change, for the government as well.

The benefit accruing to families, which Labour puts at $6 a week and National at just $1 a week, must be offset against the hidden compliance costs and the lost tax revenue of around $250 million a year. …

Rather than increase the costs to retailers, the Government focus, especially in post-quake Canterbury where employment losses are likely, should be on providing an economic environment which fosters job and income growth. This is a preferable way to ensure that fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods are affordable.


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