Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on the Privy Council’s Teina Pora decision

March 4th, 2015

The quashing of the convictions of Teina Pora for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett in 1992 has shone a spotlight once again on a major gap in the New Zealand justice system. To all intents and purposes, access by New Zealanders to the Privy Council has now been closed. Yet the number of times in recent years when the Privy Council has quashed the findings of New Zealand courts has demonstrated that we are regularly (a) jailing the wrong person or (b) arriving at guilty verdicts on grounds sufficiently flawed as to raise serious doubts that a miscarriage of justice has occurred. Sometimes – as the Privy Council ruling on the Pora case has found – the decisive factor has been subsequent advances in forensic evidence. With Pora, this advance was over the reliability of false confessions.

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Gordon Campbell on the recent smackdown over Greece, and Mr Spock RIP

March 2nd, 2015

There had been a fortnight of fevered buildup. Yet here we are in the aftermath of the February 28 showdown between the new Syriza government in Greece and the European Union “troika” and… no-one seems entirely sure what happened. Did the asteroid miss Earth? It seems to have. The EU still exists. Syriza is now claiming a victory of sorts. It doesn’t help that the only people who do appear to be sure (the Greeks buckled) are claiming the exact opposite to what the other group (the Greeks won!) are saying. Plus, there are bets either way e.g. Bloomberg News: “Its too early to say who caved in to whom.”

Offhand, I can’t think of another major news event where the outcome seems to have been so confusingly under-reported. You’d think with the stakes alleged to be so high – the survival of Greece’s left wing government vs the future of the European Union – that we wouldn’t be still scratching our heads in confusion.

By and large, the Australian economist John Quiggin thinks the Greeks did pretty well out of last week’s game of chicken and his reports here – and here – include a helpful outline of what led up to the February 28 showdown. As he says, the German-dominated EU bureaucracy remain supremely sure of the reasons for the current crisis. In their view :

The problem is one of profligate spending by successive Greek governments, who evaded the Maastricht rules meant to constrain government debt. Their folly having caught up with them, the Greeks are now seeking to shift the burden to the long-suffering taxpayers of Northern Europe, and, in particular, Germany. The only solution is to get debt and deficits under control through deep cuts in public spending.

There is a grain of truth in this…..But in reality the financial tsunami that engulfed the world in 2008 did not discriminate between the prodigal and the prudent. Countries like Spain, which were running budget surpluses before the crisis were hit just as hard as Greece…

Right. The fact that Spain and Ireland – who had been virtuously balancing their books beforehand – were also left in need of an EU bailout suggests that the root cause was not excessive spending by Greece or by anyone else. Blame can be justly levelled at the huge GFC – related recession which exposed the extortionate trading relations between Germany and the rest of the EU. As others found, the austerity solution that the EU then imposed on Greece (and others) only made a bad situation worse.

The GFC, and the subsequent recession and banking crisis made it impossible for Greece and other national governments to service their debts, given reduced revenue and the need to rescue domestic banks. They were therefore forced to accept bailouts on conditions imposed by a “Troika” comprising the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission (EC) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The core condition was the acceptance of a program of “austerity”, that is, deep cuts in public spending. The underlying theory, based on some sketchy research and a lot of wishful thinking was that such cuts would allow room for the private sector to grow, thereby generating tax revenue and assisting in the “financial consolidation” needed to reduce debt and deficits.

Austerity proved a disastrous failure in practice, to the point where the IMF concluded that it did not work as intended and was in fact highly contractionary

In the lead up to the February 28 showdown, the opening gambits had been predictably extreme. Greece was seeking an extension of the bailout, and a complete rewrite of the austerity conditions – while the EU was supposedly seeking total compliance. In reality, Syriza’s real aims were more modest. At crunch, it was seeking a rollover of the existing conditions and without necessarily tying itself to the previous austerity conditions. It got that. It had wanted a six month extension, but it got four months.

For its part, the EU had wanted an absolute Syriza capitulation to the existing bailout programme without any option to change the austerity measures further down the track. That is not what happened. Around the edges, Greece also agreed to a (reduced) programme of privatisation, and it won an increase – size as yet unspecified – in the minimum wage. As Quiggin says, Greece now has four months to come up with an alternative reform programme.

It remains to be seen how the compromise deal will play out. Opinions differ, largely in line with pre-existing views. Supporters of continued austerity see the deal as a climb-down by Syriza, sugar-coated with some softer language. This view is shared by those on the left who favour an immediate exit from the euro and the repudiation of “odious” debt.

Syriza supporters (of whom I am one) see it as a backdown by the Troika, paving the way for at least moderate fiscal expansion and a shift away from austerity. Only time will tell.

Spiritual Needs on a Tight Defence Budget

While the spiritual needs of the Islamic State fighters are being more than amply catered for, can one say the same for the Crusaders… I mean, for the coalition forces heading into Iraq to oppose IS? The NZ Army currently has 13 chaplains among its ranks, and 6 others in the reserves. So will a chaplain be sent as part of our 143 strong Iraq deployment ? When I asked the NZDF this question I got a resounding “maybe” in response from a spokesperson: “The final composition of the Building Partner capacity training mission is yet to be confirmed but provision of welfare support is a standard part of any deployment order.”

If a chaplain isn’t sent, how will the spiritual needs of the deployed troops be met? “Planning for the welfare support of deployed personnel, including spiritual needs, is underway and appropriate levels of support will be provided.” Fortunately, the Army chaplaincy doesn’t seem to depend entirely on divine protection. In the careers options on the NZDF website , it is made clear that chaplains receive full weapons training as part of their skillset.

Abort, Abbott!

While the vultures circle around Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the one thing he has in his favour is that if they sack him, then his Treasurer, Joe Hockey, would almost certainly need to be tossed overboard as well. But then who would present the Hockey-drafted Budget due in May? So, there is an argument for keeping Abbott/Hockey in place, and using the Budget fallout as the pretext for the leadership change.

That could be messy, either way. If Hockey’s survival instincts see him deliver a benign Budget, the rationale for removing him and his boss would recede. But if Hockey sticks to his guns, the Liberals would look like wusses for dumping the guy who made the hard calls needed to revive an ailing Aussie economy blah blah…So should Abbott’s enemies strike now and ride out the Budget consequences ?

Not an easy decision. Barely 18 months since taking over the Treasury benches the Liberal Coalition has become a lame duck government. That’s a disaster for them. Abbott can expect to have few friends, once he is banished to the wilderness.

Mr Spock RIP

On the weekend, Leonard Nimoy died, aged 83. Any number of Youtube clips celebrate Nimoy in his role as Spock, the half human, half Vulcan logician on Star Trek who found emotion to be… such a fascinating but rationally objectionable quality of the human race. Beneath that cool logical veneer though, one sensed that seething emotions were deeply buried… and any number of plotlines exist where Spock fell in love, cried, drank brandy and recalled the good old days on his home planet. “On Vulcan, teddy bears are alive. And they have six inch fangs.” Even Captain Kirk once ended up trying to goad Spock into a human response by calling him a “a mutinous, disloyal, computerised half breed! An overgrown jackrabbit! An elf with an over-active thyroid..! ” Here’s a great collection of Spockian pearls of insight:

Yet Mr. Spock wasn’t the only Nimoy creation. Think also of his rendition of “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” – which would be a strong contender in any contest to find the worst song ever recorded.

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Gordon Campbell on the wage hike for MPs (and Paul Robeson)

February 27th, 2015

Hard to tell what is more infuriating. Is it the 5.3% increase on the already bloated salaries of MPs, or their pantomime of outrage at being gifted with such a wonderful back-dated bonanza? As usual, Prime Minister John Key has busily tried to distance himself from the political fallout, even though he happens to be the main beneficiary of the Remuneration Authority’s generosity. Finance Minister Bill English says with a straight face that it would actually be very hard to give the money back. Surely, he can’t be serious. (Ordinary taxpayers send money back to the government all the time, in the wake of IRD returns. We could show him how it’s done.) And even if it were true, it would actually be very easy for English and any other guilty colleagues, to give the extra money away. There are any number of food banks or homeless shelters who would be able to put the money to good use. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on whether NZ troops are the least of Islamic State’s problems

February 25th, 2015

Given that it has been politically packaged and sold as a training mission, the Iraq deployment announced yesterday by Prime Minister John Key seemed to be mysteriously short of…actual trainers. Only 16 specialist trainers will be among the 143 strong contingent, which is a mere 15% of the team. The vast majority of those deployed will be otherwise engaged. Some 90 of them will be either defending the trainers, and /or will be carrying out combat duties such as intelligence gathering related to the calling in of air strikes. Some 37 others will be assigned to coalition offices in Baghdad and bases elsewhere in the Middle East – again, presumably in helping to co-ordinate the coalition’s combat activities. The bulk of the New Zealand force will arrive in Iraq in May. Clearly, this is not, primarily, a “training” mission. It is a combat mission that will do some training on the side.

In Parliament yesterday, Key challenged the Opposition “to stand up and be counted” and show some “guts” and support the deployment. Hmmm. How much “guts” does it actually take to send someone else into harm’s way? The Americans have a term for it – chicken hawk – to describe the pen-pushing patriots who are dead keen on their country taking a tough military stance, so long as it is not them, or their sons or their daughters, who are doing the actual fighting.

The other wing of the argument is whether a troop deployment is (a) the only effective way and (b) the appropriate time to combat Islamic State. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on the drip-feeding of information about the Iraq deployment

February 24th, 2015

There are two ways of framing the story of our troop deployment in Iraq. They go roughly like this:

The Official Version : We are going to Iraq solely to train Iraqis. We will not be engaged in combat against the Islamic State. Our troops will be safely behind the wire at all times.

The Alternative Version: Besides training the Iraqis, some of our forces will be engaged in intelligence gathering, which – among other things – will involve identifying targets for air strikes and providing the co-ordinates to increase the accuracy and effectiveness of bombing raids. This is highly dangerous work. Canadian special forces engaged in air strike assistance in Iraq this year have repeatedly come under fire from Islamic State fighters.

So far, no coalition forces engaged in this work have been captured and executed, but doing so would be a high priority for IS.

No prizes for guessing which version the Key government has been promoting, to the point of being actively misleading. Compare for instance, these two statements. Here’s Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee on 12 February in reply to a question in the House from Greens MP Kennedy Graham:

Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: “I would caution the member about making a lack of distinction between the activities that the Canadians are undertaking at the moment. They do have people there who are in assist missions. We have no intention of being in those.” [My emphasis]

Compare that assurance with what Prime Minister John Key said at the post-Cabinet press conference yesterday as, under questioning, Key outlined what intelligence gathering by our troops in Iraq would entail:

“Intelligence gathering has been a function that we have done in the past in lots of locations. We’ve certainly done that in places like Afghanistan that’s been well and truly documented… It could be airstrike assists, [My emphasis] it could be for a variety of different reasons.”

So… over the course of a fortnight, we’ve had a 180 degree change of direction from this government, on the issue of our troops being engaged in air strike assistance. Or – more likely – Brownlee was delivering wrong information in the House on 12 February either deliberately or through incompetence. Later today, we will hear the full details of the deployment. In Australia, our contribution was already being reported three days ago as constituting 100 troops, to be co-located with an Australian contingent at Camp Taji, 30 kms north of Baghdad. Once again, the political massaging of the news about the Iraq deployment has trumped the public’s ready access to the actual information about it.

Waxahatchee Returns

Change of subject. Kathie Crutchfield, who hails from Alabama and records under the name Waxahatchee is about to release her third album, and her confidence keeps growing. She may still sounds like a 1990s indie throwback, but Crutchfield has a distinctive songwriting style: her lyrics are intelligent, and her delivery of them is always emotionally direct. As breakup songs go, “Air” – which is the first single from the new album – is a compassionate, adult take on a relationship split. Lines like “I left you out like a carton of milk” convey her own rueful sense of being part way responsible for the break-up she’s describing. She’s got a good take on other subjects, too. Her breakthrough song in 2012 “Be Good” was an argument for the advantages of non-romantic relationships:

It’s unclear now, what we intend
We’re alone in our own world
You don’t wanna be my boyfriend
And I don’t wanna be your girl
And that, that’s a relief
We’ll drink up our grief
And pine for summer
And we’ll buy beer to shotgun
And we’ll lay in the lawn
And we’ll be good

Now I’m laughing at my boredom
At my string of failed attempts
Because you think that it’s important
And I welcome the sentiment

Here’s “Air” and by way of contrast, Waxahatchee’s original, low fi version of “Be Good”.

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Gordon Campbell on today’s announcement on sending our troops to Iraq

February 23rd, 2015

Click for big version.

Later today, the Key government is expected to announce that New Zealand is planning to send about 100 troops on a training mission to Iraq. This will be followed by a predictably divided debate in Parliament. Have Kiwi troops ever been sent on a mission overseas with a weaker mandate than this Iraqi deployment? It appears to lack authority and support (a) among the Parliament of Iraq that we are supposed to be helping and (b) among the Parliament and public here at home.

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Gordon Campbell on the dangers posed by the upcoming security services review

February 20th, 2015

Could the June review of New Zealand’s security and intelligence be about to bestow on our spy agencies the express right to break the laws of other countries, if the SIS/GCSB feel inclined to do so? That’s possible, given that the Law Commission’s Geoff Mclay told RNZ yesterday that New Zealand’s legal position on security issues has fallen behind its 5 Eyes partners – at least one of whom seems very, very keen to go down that road. In the coming months, the Law Commission will be conducting its own review of how secret documents are handled in court cases, and will be timing its work on this subject to “coalesce” with the government’s wider review of the powers of security agencies. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on the America’s Cup, and Lee Marvin

February 19th, 2015

Like the Commonwealth Games, the America’s Cup is one of those large sporting events that is struggling to find anyone foolish enough to want to host it. San Francisco certainly found that the America’s Cup delivered far, far less than it promised. Not only did a major general uptick in economic activity fail to eventuate, but very few jobs for locals and only minimal buy-in from small business occurred. The official report showed that hosting the event left San Francisco local government $11.5 million in the red. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on Andrew Little’s not-so-great week

February 18th, 2015

No, it hasn’t been a terrific week so far for Andrew Little. The Labour leader’s decision to exclude the Greens from the (toothless?) committee that will play a yet-to-be-determined oversight role in the June review of our security and intelligence legislation is more important for its symbolism than for its real-life impact. By hogging the two available opposition slots for Labour – Little and foreign affairs spokesperson David Shearer will sit on the committee panel – Little has (a) snubbed the Greens who have a proven track record on such issues and (b) confirmed the impression that when it comes to security issues, Labour and National operate as a cosy duopoly that will do nothing to rock the boat with our 5 Eyes allies. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on Labour’s latest stance on Iraq

February 17th, 2015

On RNZ this morning, Labour leader Andrew Little expressed his support for air strikes in Iraq against Islamic State – and by doing so, he may have unwittingly undermined Labour’s opposition to a military response from New Zealand. For months, it has been evident that the coalition bombing campaign needs effective spotters on the ground to identify and locate IS targets. Otherwise, for a period last year a high ratio of coalition sorties were ending with US bombers returning with their bombs still on board, having found no targets.

That spotting role is the kind of training currently being done for instance, by the Canadian special forces. It is dangerous work in that it has to be done out in the field, and that partly explains why Canada’s contingent in northern Iraq has been involved in four separate firefights with IS forces in the past month alone.

It is the kind of assistance that our SAS can also readily provide, and it does make a difference. Having spotters in place to direct coalition air strikes proved a crucial factor in the recent fighting around Kobane, on Syria’s border with Turkey.

So by endorsing air strikes, Little has (unintentionally) made a case for sending the SAS to assist in some of the most dangerous – and effective – training work in the fight against Islamic State. Of course, this also undermines the government’s claim that any troops that we send to Iraq will be safely located behind the wire. If there is an SAS “training” component, that won’t be behind the wire. That’s a fieldwork exercise. Read the rest of this entry »