Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on the govt’s token plans for cyber-security

May 6th, 2016

Basically, the world is divided into two types of people: those who think the Panama Papers illustrate the bad shit that some people do, and those who think the Panama Papers illustrate what needs to be done to make sure no-one else discovers the shit – good or bad – that they’re doing. Interesting then, that in yesterday’s speech to an audience of corporate leaders at the first Cyber Security Summit in Auckland, Prime Minister John Key didn’t advise the captains of industry on how being a good corporate citizen might be the best way of preventing them from becoming a hacking target in the first place. Instead, he urged them to invest in a really, really good cyber-security firewall:

[Prime Minister John Key] said the massive information leak from the Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, which revealed global tax avoidance practices, is proof no company was safe from hacking. “Whatever the rights and wrongs of whatever business they do, these people have sat there thinking they’re dealing with their clients on a confidential basis.”

“Their information has been hacked and is now in the public domain.” He said businesses should not think that would never happen to them.

To give this the most charitable reading….maybe Mossack Fonseca wasn’t the best example of a hacking victim that Key might have selected. Oh true, he did also mention the hack of Sony Pictures. But that example isn’t any better. The Sony hack is widely believed to have been a North Korean operation, motivated by the Pyongyang regime’s desire for payback after Sony had financed a James Franco/Seth Rogen ‘comedy’ film about the assassination of North Korea’s political leader. In addition : among the many revelations from the Sony hack was the cold, hard evidence that the female stars on the film American Hustle ( Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams) were paid considerably less than their male co-stars. Subsequently, the Sony revelations have triggered a useful debate on institutionalized sexism in the US entertainment industry and corporate life in general. As noted in this great essay by Jennifer Lawrence.

Meaning: as with Mossack Fonseca, the Sony hack put material into the public domain that has proved to be in the public interest. Key, however, has chosen to cite both these examples as red light warnings to New Zealand corporates to beef up their online secrecy. All of this was merely the prelude to the government unveiling its solution to the cyber threats allegedly facing this country : a Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) that will receive $2.2 million to set itself up, and then have $5 million a year to spend on helping to keep New Zealand business safe from the stranger dangers out there online:

The Government has announced it will spend $22.2 million over the next four years on improving New Zealand’s cyber security.

Of that, $2.2 million will be spent setting up a Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT). The remaining $20 million will be CERT’s operational funds.

That’s the problem of course. If you portray the risks online in apocalyptic terms – yikes, the Chinese/North Koreans/Eastern Europeans etc are coming to steal our intellectual property and all of our trade secrets ! – then $5 million a year in operational funding looks like a pretty token response. Go big though, and it looks even more like corporate welfare, and state provision of protections that New Zealand business should be paying for itself. Incidentally, won’t CERT’s efforts overlap with what the GCSB is supposed to be doing in this same area ? Isn’t the GCSB supposed to be concerned with online threats to New Zealand’s economic interests? Who’s going to be the sheriff here ? Funny. Normally, our freedom-loving captains of industry fancy themselves as bold adventurers on the oceans of commerce…yet this proposal not only invites them to share their secrets with Big Brother, but to actively seek its protection. An odd fit, wouldn’t you say, ideologically speaking.

Basic question : is the bulk of the online risk to New Zealand of the ‘stranger danger’ kind located offshore – or are most of this country’s online violations originating within branches of the New Zealand corporate family, as firms raid each other for market advantage ? If, as one would suspect, it really is the latter….CERT would readily become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. How, for instance, will CERT be supposed to handle and store the confidential information that will be essential to it assisting in the provision of a significant defence? And why would any sane NZ firm think that sharing its defensive strategies with a government agency wasn’t going to pose an additional security risk in itself?

In other words, everything about CERT smacks of it offering merely generic advice, and being marketing fluff for the security industry that stands to gain an influx of business from this handout of public money. Surely, if firms had genuine secrets worth keeping, then they should pay for the expertise required to keep themselves safe? Isn’t that how the free market is supposed to work? Already, the state pays for the bulk of the research and development work carried out in New Zealand, and from which the private sector reaps a good deal of private gain. Now the taxpayer is helping to pay for their online security as well; primarily, to enable the private sector to conceal information that (in some cases at least) the public needs to know.

Footnote: XKCD’s Randall Munroe on the urge to ‘Cyber-‘.

Secrets, secrets

Songs about secrets? First, from the Pierces, doing that vampy thing they did so well :

And then I suppose, there are these guys:

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Gordon Campbell on Pharmac’s grudging concession to reality

May 5th, 2016

Is this any way to run a health system… whereby terminally ill patients are forced into public demonstrations before the government (and its funding agency Pharmac) will grudgingly provide the money for life-saving treatments freely available and publically funded in Australia for the best part of a year? The money involved – $39 million for the anti-melano0ma drug Opdivo and other drugs – is a mere pittance in the context of government expenditure.

The government said Pharmac would get an extra $39 million next year to enable it to fund the new immunotherapy drug for some 350 patients with advanced melanoma, along with several other new drug treatments….

The agency is not saying what share of the $39m funding Opdivo would take. The other treatments to be funded include harvoni and viekira pak for Hepatitis C, Azithromycin for lung disease in children, rituximab for kidney disease in children, temozolomide brain and neuroendocrine tumours and oestradiol patches for menopausal women.

This column consistently compares the miserly sums allocated to health treatments that save actual lives, with the huge amounts handed over without a murmur to counter the purely theoretical threats facing our Defence forces. e.g. the $440 million armaments upgrade earlier this year for the Navy frigates, the multi-million upgrade to submarine detection (!) capacity of our P-3 Orions, and the $46 million spent last month on a no-expense spared “ world class” “Battle Training Facility” that will train our soldiers for combat by enabling them to play video-games (!) with live ammunition. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on Pharmac’s indefensible stance on the new melanoma drugs

May 3rd, 2016

One of the interesting line items in this month’s Budget will be the one that sets out the increase – if any – in Pharmac’s base funding, to enable it to meet the huge cost of the new class of so called ‘biologics’ drugs for treating advanced skin cancer.

To date, Pharmac has withstood the intense public relations campaign that has been waged by the Merck, Sharp & Dohme (MSD) drug company to force Pharmac to commit to Keytruda, the first of these PD-1 immune system-driven, cancer inhibitor drugs to reach the market.

Recently, Keytruda’s main rival – Opdivo, from the Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) drug company – has been approved for use in New Zealand.

Theoretically, this creates the situation that Pharmac has been angling for – whereby it has two rival products on the market that could supposedly be induced to compete against each other on price, thus enabling Pharmac to gain savings on the vast cost involved in subsidizing them. If that’s the tactic, it won’t happen soon enough to provide much relief. Overseas, both Opdivo and Keytruda have sustained sky-high prices, even while in competition. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on not crying foul, Argentina

April 29th, 2016

So a couple of guys found to be criminally liable of environmental pollution in Argentina lodge an application with the Overseas Investment Office… in order to buy some prime New Zealand rural land. Seems that their factory back home had carelessly and/or intentionally discharged toxic waste into the Lujan river. Bummer. But that’s not what this application is about. This is about their desire to put $6 million on the table as the purchase price for Onetai Station in north Taranaki. Are these two men of good character asks the OIO sternly, them being the fierce guardians of the public interest and all. Pure as the driven snow, says their lawyer, who works for a firm called Mosseck Fonseca, based in Panama. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on Trump and the Madman Theory

April 28th, 2016

Years ago, Richard Nixon explained to his chief adviser Bob Haldeman what has since become known as the “Madman Theory” of foreign policy.

Basically, if America’s rivals could be reminded that Nixon was an unstable, rabid anti-Communist with his finger on the nuclear trigger, Nixon reasoned, then maybe they’d be less willing to challenge the US in the world’s hot spots. Don’t push him, ‘cause he’s close to the edge.

“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” [1]

Donald Trump looks like the latest incarnation of this theory. As President, would Trump be just ‘crazy nutty ‘or ‘crazy like a fox’? Hopefully, the world won’t be put in the position of finding out for sure. One of the problems with the Madman Theory (which BTW, can be traced all the say back to Machiavelli’s advice that “ It can be very wise thing to feign madness”) is that in order to be convincing, you need to sometimes play the part, and do some actual crazy bad stuff. Such as invading Cambodia. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on Kiwirail’s latest stint in the dogbox

April 27th, 2016

The denigration of Kiwirail continues. The latest review (based on a 2014 assessment) of the options facing the company have enabled Kiwirail to be hung out to dry once again as a liability and burden on the taxpayer.

The company is an ‘economic cot case’, in the words of one media report this morning. In reality, the review’s sole consideration was whether (and how) Kiwirail could be turned into a ‘for profit’ business, as construed on very narrow commercial grounds. No consideration was given or value placed upon the social and environmental benefits of Kiwirail’s freight and passenger operations. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on having an extradition treaty with China

April 21st, 2016

Reportedly, an extradition treaty with China is now on the table, although – thankfully – Prime Minister John Key has also indicated that a lot of detailed work would be required before any such arrangement took final shape, much less came into force. For now, our sympathetic murmurings about China’s desire to pursue its fugitive citizens need not be taken as a readiness to collude in railroading people back to face the tender mercies of China’s flawed system of justice.

The problems with China’s justice system are well known. Due process in court is almost non-existent and defendants are routinely deemed guilty by definition. Torture is a regular feature of interrogation, and prison conditions are notoriously harsh. Crucially, China’s legal code also condones the death penalty for economic crimes – eg embezzlement and fraud – even though criminal intent and culpability are very much in the eye of the beholder.

The Chinese system can – for example – readily criminalise those who engage in lending to small and medium scale businesses, even though they can depend on such finance for survival. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell On Our Fearless PM’s Foray Into China

April 19th, 2016

Don’t mention the South China Sea dispute. Oh, but he will! Earlier this week, the image of dauntless Prime Minister John Key not backing down in the face of alleged Chinese intimidation would have done him no harm at all with the voters back home. Here was the plucky Kiwi guy, heroically standing up to the superpower bully. Actually, it was nothing of the sort. We have never hesitated to re-assure China that we won’t cause trouble for them over the South China Sea dispute. As Key also said yesterday: “New Zealand’s position on the South China Sea hasn’t changed, and we consistently raise that message with the Chinese leadership.” Plus, Key added, New Zealand is “less aggressive” on this issue that some other countries.

You betcha. We’ve been conducting a charm offensive with China on this point for quite some time. In a speech he delivered in China last September, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee painted China as posing no military threat – not now, and not in the future: “We do not expect the South Pacific will face an external military threat.” Brownlee also called China a “strategic partner” and lavishly praised our “Five Year Engagement Plan with the Peoples’ Liberation Army”. In that speech, Brownlee tiptoed around the South China Sea issue, calling on “all claimant states to take steps to reduce tensions” within the framework of international law. No blame being levelled there. Interestingly, Brownlee also said: “We do not see our defence relationships with the United States and China as mutually exclusive.” Wowzah.

Calling on all sides to show restraint and to abide by international law isn’t exactly a brave and bold stance. It is the kind of ‘no blame’ position the Chinese have been looking for. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on the banning of a leading Iranian film-maker

April 18th, 2016

For the past fortnight, New Zealand has been obsessing on the reputational risk to this country of being seen as a tax haven – despite the fact that (with the notable exception of the Australian Financial Review) few sources offshore have linked New Zealand to the Panama Papers. Well, here’s a far more palpable risk to our global reputation. Last month, Iran’s Foreign Minister visited here and discussed avenues for resuming trade with New Zealand.

This week, New Zealand chose to ban a temporary visit by the distinguished Iranian film-maker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, winner of 20 international film awards. During her visit, she would have – among other things – been screening and discussing her prize-winning new documentary Sonita. Filmed over the course of three years, this documentary traces the aspirations of an engaging and talented 14 year old female rapper. Along the way, the film deals with the selling by Afghanistan of young women as bridesRead the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on political rhetoric, and the Dark Triad

April 15th, 2016

Unfortunately, the systematic use of tax avoidance strategies – by corporates and by wealthy individuals – is not occurring in a vacuum. At an accelerating rate, new technology is wiping out the sort of jobs in the retail sector, white collar professions and transport industry that up until now, have sustained the middle class. The winners circle is shrinking. At the same time, populations are ageing and healthcare needs are expanding in every developed country on the globe. Meaning: more and more of the care of the aging boomer generation will fall onto families who are currently losing their stable incomes and who are becoming reliant (at best) on short term insecure contracts, and on multiple low paying jobs. Simultaneously, governments are watching the tax revenues that might enable them to respond to social need – assuming they felt inclined to do so – vanish into offshore tax havens, and via a range of ‘grey area’ tax dodges. Read the rest of this entry »