Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on whether Donald Trump has peaked

April 7th, 2016

For the past ten days, the world has been daring to hope that the wheels may finally be coming off the Trump bandwagon – sufficiently at least, to deny Trump the nomination outright. According to this narrative…. perhaps come August, when the Republicans will finally get to anoint their candidate at their convention in Cleveland, Trump’s fortunes will have waned and the delegate count will be sufficiently deadlocked as to create a ‘contested convention’ whereby the party might then be able to turn to a different, dark horse candidate – such as House Speaker Paul Ryan – and thereby save the day, and the GOP’s bacon in the November election. Yesterday’s result in Wisconsin – where Cruz crushed Trump – will have fed such hopes. Maybe, by the time Cleveland rolls around, Trump won’t have reached the magic figure of 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination.

Dream on. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on living in denial about the Panama Papers

April 5th, 2016

So now we know why New Zealand won all those awards for being the ‘easiest place to do business.’ Evidently, foreign firms that register in New Zealand can operate with impunity when it comes to complying with (a) our money-laundering and terrorism financing laws and (b) our international obligations on such activities. Pity the investors offshore. It would be entirely reasonable of them to assume that a firm that’s registered in New Zealand would be subject to some regulatory oversight (before and after) by the New Zealand authorities – especially when we know from their brochures that some of these shonky firms are actively using their New Zealand connection to convey a sense that First World standards will govern their activities.

No such luck, and no such standards. Now we’re learning – via the Panama Papers – that shady Maltese and Panamanian operators were using shell companies in New Zealand as a key part of their global tax manoeuvres. At a time when politicians claim that there’s only limited tax revenue in the kitty to spend on social services the Panama Papers also reveal that this one firm in Panama had business links to 140 politicians and 72 current or former heads of state as it pursued its ingenious methods of tax avoidance. The foxes not only run this henhouse. In many cases, they built it themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on the tension between health and defence spending, and Batman v Superman

April 1st, 2016

What is the more rational use of taxpayer money? In one instance, we have New Zealanders with orthopedic problems living in pain until they can get access to the surgery they need.

For many, their condition is being allowed to deteriorate to the point where they may belatedly qualify for more complex, and less effective, surgery. A few million dollars would fix this problem. Instead, a policy of “explicit rationing” of joint replacement surgery appears to be in place.

“Patients undergoing primary elective total hip and knee replacement in Otago in 2014 are more severely disabled than between 2006-2010. Patients currently being returned to a GP would have qualified for publicly-funded surgery during that period.”

[Dunedin hospital orthopaedic surgeon Associate Professor David Gwynne-Jones] also said that it had been predicted that the demand and projected numbers of hip and knee replacement would rise significantly, because of the ageing population.

“It is unclear how this can be funded. While the Budget announcement of increased numbers of total joint replacement from 2016 onwards is welcome, the numbers are inadequate to match demand.”

Or on the other hand, should we spend hundreds of millions of dollars instead on new submarine spotting equipment for the military’s Orion airplanes, to enable them to operate in regions far from New Zealand, and in a threat environment where the actual threat to this country is acknowledged to be currently so low as to be virtually non-existent. Now, guess which of these options is more likely to be funded.

The Ministry of Defence’s outgoing deputy director of acquisitions, Des Ashton, said the current equipment was past its use-by date. Defence spending was a matter of priorities and he expected a decision in the next few months. “The strategic assessment that was carried out in the 2010 White Paper identified that this was a requirement that we needed to have. “The old equipment has outlived its day and the new equipment that’s available is far more capable and matches contemporary threats.”

It is as if Defence operates in a vacuum that is immune to rational scrutiny. Because it has had certain roles dating back to the Cold War – Defence “ needs” to keep on playing such roles, and it must be funded accordingly, regardless of the minimal threat environment in the real world, and regardless of this country’s existing social problems. The usual experts are weighing in on the grave necessity of pouring scarce money down this particular sinkhole:

Victoria University professor of strategic studies Robert Ayson said the upgrade was necessary. “The South Pacific is not a heavy submarine area but New Zealand also operates further afield.” China and other Southeast Asian nations were increasing their underwater capabilities, he said.

Do we really think that China and ‘other Southeast Asian nations’ – Vietnam? Malaysia? Indonesia? – pose such an existential threat to this country that we have to underfund the pressing health needs of New Zealanders in order to purchase military gear that is (a) fantastically expensive and (b) prone to obsolescence shortly after it is bought. (The Orions themselves are set for replacement early next decade. Will this hideously expensive gear even be transferable to whatever aircraft we buy to replace them?)

Yes, we “need” to spend all this money on Defence if we assume we still operate in a Cold War environment – in which our main trading partner (China) poses a significant threat to our very survival. Most of us don’t live on that planet. But we do live on the planet where the health system is being systematically starved of the resources it needs. To repeat : this thriftiness is being enforced to sustain the spend envisaged on anti-submarine war-fighting that is little more than a videogame delusion dreamed up by our allies in Canberra and Washington. In reality, the defence threats we actually face – to the national interest and to corporate wellbeing – are emanating from state and private sector cyber hackers, not from Asians in submarines. Purely taken on its own terms, the Defence spend seems entirely misdirected.

Still, if it does nothing else, the extravagance of the spend on new defence equipment – estimated to be $NZ11 billion over the next decade – gives the lie to the claim that government spending on social services has to be rationed. Plainly, that is not the case. Because when it comes to the pursuit of business as usual in Defence, the sky is the limit.

Talcum powder can kill

This week’s other medical horror story is this one, which traces the links between the prolonged use of Johnson and Johnson’s talcum powder, and ovarian cancer.

For a different kind of horror story, here’s an analysis of how the very survival of the Warners studio (those nice people who brought you The Hobbit and the related degradation of workers’ right in this country) will hinge on the box office performance of Batman v Superman.

Despite the critical drubbing the film has received, the first week’s returns brought good news for Warners. Currently though, Box Office Mojo indicates that the film is making most of its money offshore: 60.5% to 39.5% in American theatres.

So the mooted $US1.15 billion domestic box office return being sought still looks a long way off. One hates to feel ill will towards Warners, but it would be nice to think that sometime, somehow, the era of comic book superhero movies might be coming to an end.

And as for the political subtext. Hmmm. How relevant to the presidential campaign of 2016 could a choice possibly be between two would-be superheroes – neither of whom are likeable, and one of whom seems psychotic? In an against-the-critical-tide article, Salon focused on the film’s (stunted) political subtext:

Aside from shots of anti-Superman protesters carrying protest signs modelled after the anti-Mexican rhetoric that contaminates our discourse today, there isn’t much of an exploration of xenophobia vis-à-vis Superman’s origin story (a missed opportunity in any ostensibly politicized Superman parable). There are similarly fleeting references to drone strikes and civil liberties violations, all dutifully ticked off as vestiges of a security state run amok before quickly forgotten. The movie does include commendably strong female characters like Lois Lane and Wonder Woman, but they receive such insufficient attention that they barely make an impact (a shortcoming more likely attributable to its cluttered narrative than outright sexism).

At the same time, there is actually something very intelligent, even subversive, about a superhero film that is so brazen in challenging the political legitimacy of those who would-be superheroes. It is the central conflict that drives the narrative and keeps the audience engaged in the on-screen action, even if the flat characters make it hard to invest on a deeper level. This isn’t a movie that simply includes those elements to make itself seem more profound; without that political subtext, the film barely exists at all.

Frightened Rabbit return

For years, the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit have made music about the darker, danker aspects of romantic obsession, without leader/songwriter/vocalist Scott Hutchison ever losing track of his self-flagellating sense of decency. From the striking early tracks (“The Modern Leper” and “The Twist”) on through the political stuff ( “Scottish Wind”) to the sincerely romantic (“Candelit”, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” ) the band has steadily worked its way towards ever more symphonic versions of their dour Scottish idealism. This process culminated in 2013’s Pedestrian Verse album – which was a brilliant dead end, but a dead end just the same.

The group has now regrouped, stripped things right back, and released a new album this month called Painting of A Panic Attack. As that title suggests, Frightened Rabbit are still as obsessive as ever, but this is definitely a new sonic direction for them. Online there’s a good clip of them doing the “Get Out” song on the Colbert show, but here is the official video, some of it shot near the huge Motherland Monument in Kiev, Ukraine:

Typical Scott Hutchison lyric too, in the precision of the torment involved:

I’m in the arch of the church
Between her thumb and her forefinger

I’m a worshipper…
Get out of my heart
She won’t, she won’t
Get out of my heart
She won’t, she won’t

I saw a glimmer in the dark
And now I know she won’t get out of my heart
She won’t….

Poor old Scott. It just doesn’t seem to get any easier for him. And for old times sake, here’s “The Twist”:

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Gordon Campbell on the SIS crying wolf, the Syrian end game and Max Edwards RIP

March 30th, 2016

In the wake of the Cullen/Reddy review of the security services – and the suggested extension of their powers – it seems healthy to highlight any examples of the SIS crying wolf. We’ve already had them do that in the case of the ‘jihadi brides’ where SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge raised the spectre of women leaving from New Zealand to join the Islamic State.

This turned out to be less of a threat than painted, since it subsequently emerged that the very small number of women concerned were actually leaving from Australia, with no evidence that (a) they would be coming back from Syria and (b) if they did, that they would be returning to New Zealand and (c) even if they were, whether such a handful of returnees would pose a security threat.

This week, the SIS reported back on their use of the special powers granted to them in late 2014 to conduct surveillance without a warrant, in cases of serious and urgent threat.

It turns out that between July and December 2015 that power was used only once. Moreover, as others have pointed out, where are the arrests for terrorist activity? If we are indeed facing a terrorist threat sufficient to justify the granting of these additional powers of privacy intrusion to the state, shouldn’t at least some of these bogeymen be ending up in court? Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on where Hillary Clinton may be worse than Trump

March 24th, 2016

Anyone with misgivings about Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions had them confirmed in spades by Clinton’s appalling speech this week on the Israel/Palestine conflict. In one stroke, Clinton vowed to defy any UN attempts at a resolution, to cozy up to Benjamin Netanyahu and to roll back even the minor pressure being exerted on Israel by the Obama administration. In short, Clinton promised to revert to naked, partisan support for Israel.

In her speech, Clinton tried to convey that U.S.-Israel relations would significantly improve under her leadership, noting that one of her first actions would be to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House. “We will never allow Israel’s adversaries to think a wedge can be driven between us,” she said. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on John Key putting defamation costs on the public tab

March 22nd, 2016

So, where are we now on the Teapot Tape saga? According to Prime Minister John Key, Key was wearing his “ leader of the National Party” hat when he made his potentially defamatory remarks in November 2011 about freelance cameraman Bradley Ambrose. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on how Obama’s Supreme Court choice says everything (bad) about his presidency

March 17th, 2016

Nothing has epitomised the presidency of Barack Obama quite like his Supreme Court nominees. Time and again, Republican presidents will blithely nominate right wing ideological extremists (Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas) who only sometimes misfire and turn out to be liberals in disguise (David Souter). Yet Obama has consistently skipped over the judicially qualified liberals and gone for a succession of centrists (Elena Kagan in particular, Sonia Sotomayor only a bit less so) that now include 63 year old Merrick Garland, whose qualifications include a police-friendly stance on evidence admissibility that would warm the cockles of any ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out’ hardliner. Hardly the best qualification when the “Tough on Crime” era of politics is now something of an anachronism.

But that’s Obama for you. Given the chance to promote liberal to left agendas, and he’ll take the centrist, moderate path of appeasement every time, even in the face of consistent evidence that the Republicans will treat any and all of his Supreme Court nominees as if they were card-carrying members of the Communist Party, regardless. Which is, of course, the political point that Obama is trying to make via the Garland appointment – that Republicans are reliably, pig headedly unreasonable. Wow. Who knew? Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on the government’s impotence towards the banks, and Iran

March 16th, 2016

One of the defining features of this government’s political style is how often Prime Minister John Key chooses to sound like a mere observer of political events. The public may think that they elected him to lead, and to be the captain on the field but – time and again – he seems far more comfortable in commenting from the sidelines. The banks’ refusal to pass on the RBNZ’s interest rate cuts? They’re charging 20% interest on credit cards when interest rates are barely flickering above 2%? They’re pillaging New Zealand to the tune of $4.59 billion a year in profits? They’re making New Zealanders pay through the nose for the banks’ own increased costs of international borrowing?

Jeepers, that’s simply how the system works. They charge: you pay. Oh, and Labour wants to do something about it – by engaging critically with the banks and/or passing legislation to ensure they pass on interest rate reductions to their customers? “They just don’t understand how the banks operate,” Key says, while standing on the sidelines with his hands in his pockets. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on the Aussie banks, and patriotic death porn about the flag

March 14th, 2016

If the New Zealand economy was a tennis player, it would be Maria Sharapova – a player reportedly reliant on artificial stimulants, and corporate endorsements. In similar vein, our economy is seemingly dependent on artificial boosts to activity from (a) construction, driven by the Christchurch earthquake and the Auckland housing bubble (b) tourism, driven by our declining dollar and (c) a series of RBNZ interest rate cuts. None of which is a sustainable path to growth.

Quite the contrary: the productive side of the economy remains in a depressed, deflated state. Yet on cue the bank economists continue to fulfil their rent-a-quote role by claiming that our GDP growth is still looking fine and is better than most; and so it is, yet only in a Sharapova sense. Sure, one can readily understand why bank economists would want to sing the praises of government policy settings that vastly enrich their employers. Last year, the four major banks raked off a massive $4.59 billion in profits from New Zealanders, thereby exceeding the rates of return these same Aussie banks are managing to cream off the folks back at home.

True to form, the Aussie banks are now refusing to pass on all – or in some cases, any – of the RBNZ’s recent interest rate cut. The banks are simply pocketing the money. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Campbell on the security services review, and Bernie Sanders’ victory against the TPP

March 10th, 2016

To no-one’s real surprise, the Cullen/Reddy review of the security services has recommended an extension of the powers of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), mainly to legally enable the agency to use its technological expertise to spy on New Zealanders.

So… a review that was triggered by the GCSB breaking the letter (and the clear intent) of the existing law– which clearly forbade it to engage in the surveillance of New Zealanders – has now rewarded the miscreants, by legalizing their behavior. Yep, that’s the way to engender public confidence – give more power to the foxes, to enable them to better guard the henhouse. Why should we, in future, place our trust in organisations that have shown in the recent past that they either cannot understand or – more credibly – simply do not respect the boundaries placed on their activities by the current law?

The Cullen/Reddy review makes much of the need to integrate the various laws governing the SIS and the GCSB, which are depicted as being confusing and piecemeal. Really? If the spy agencies find it that hard to decode the current law, how much confidence should we have in their capacity to decode the missives of foreign agents? I mean… how hard is it to have one law governing the agency that protects domestic security from the one that governs the agency that deals with foreign threats?

Regardless… the Cullen /Reddy review recommends integrating the laws governing the SIS and GCSB under one comprehensive new piece of legislation. Before rushing headlong down this path, it may be worth recalling that when Parliament passed the GCSB legislation in 2003, both sides of the House saw value in not blurring the boundaries between the SIS and GCSB – on the very reasonable grounds that the privacy rights and security needs of New Zealanders are of a different order than those emanating from foreign threats and/or at the behest of foreign intelligence agencies. Overseas, the FBI and CIA operate under different rules, and Congress sees an advantage in them continuing to do so.

As Sir Michael Cullen has already indicated, this proposed streamlining of the legal framework would be logically consistent with integrating the SIS and GCSB into a single organization – but alas, this was not within the review’s terms of reference. At its core, the review sets out three different tiers of authorization, which would supposedly click into gear in proportion to the degree of perceived threat.

In reality, this three tier system could just as easily open up fresh areas of potential ‘confusion’ for our hard working but interpretively challenged spooks. All very well to talk in general terms – as this review does – about the proportionality of the threat dictating the rigour of the authorisation process. Yet discerning where which threat should sit on the three-rung ladder is not quite so apparent. Here’s the system being proposed for the top tier of threat, which would have to be signed off by the Attorney-General and by a judicial commissioner.

The highest level of authorisation should be a warrant approved by the Attorney-General and a judicial commissioner (“tier 1 authorisation”), which would be required for any activities that would otherwise be unlawful and are for the purpose of targeting a New Zealand citizen, permanent resident or organisation. . Both the Attorney-General and judicial commissioner would need to be satisfied that the statutory criteria for issuing an authorisation are met. The Attorney-General would also take into account broader national interest considerations and would have discretion to decline to issue a warrant even if the criteria are met. The judicial commissioner would consider the legality of the application, including consistency with human rights laws.

So are the “statutory criteria for issuing an authorisation” different from the “legality of the application” or are they the same thing? (Moreover, shouldn’t “consistency with human rights” be made integral to the structure of the entire operation, instead of being an add-on matter for the judicial commissioner to subsequently consider?) Apparently, if there is a disagreement between the A-G, and the judicial commissioner, the application fails, since both need to sign off the application.

Yet how the division of labour between the A-G and the judicial commissioner will operate remains unclear. A rotating panel of three judicial commissioners is envisaged. Will all of them have equal access/equal ability to weigh those ‘broader national interest considerations’ that come into play as the operational necessity for the warrant is supposedly weighed against the human rights/privacy issues ? In practice, how could the judicial commissioners possibly weigh these human rights/privacy issues in isolation from the operational imperatives that are supposed to justify their breach? What I’m getting at is….to be meaningful, true proportionality would require that the commissioners have equal access (and an equal judgment call) on operational matters that the security services – and successive governments – have always resisted, whenever outsiders are involved.

From there on, it doesn’t get any better. Para 38 deals with the second level of authorisation, in which the Attorney General alone makes the call:

The second tier of authorisation would be a warrant issued by the Attorney-General. A tier 2 authorisation should be required for the Agencies to carry out any activities that would otherwise be unlawful, but are not for the purpose of targeting New Zealand citizens, permanent residents or organisations.

Right. So the Cullen/Reddy envisages a system whereby human rights considerations do not apply to foreigners operating within our territory – which is arguable, but can be justified – but lets think about the practicality of these tier 1 & 2 distinctions. On the ground… which authorisation rules will be deemed to apply when it involves surveillance of a meeting that involves both New Zealand citizens and foreigners? Or a phone call between a foreign agent and a New Zealander?

Wouldn’t the security services be likely to plump for level two – which cuts out the judicial commissioner and keeps the authorisation process in-house – and treat the rights of the New Zealanders involved as being collateral damage? While allegedly fostering transparency, the three tiers envisaged all but invite a gaming of the system.

And while it sounds looks all very well and good for the Attorney-General to be the decider – is this really much of a check and a balance when the current Attorney-General is also the Minister responsible for the GCSB, and is also the Minister in charge of the SIS? While putting on different hats, the A-G will essentially be vetting the legality of operations that he has helped to set in train.

All that aside… the oversight mechanisms are the real test of any system that grants special powers to the security services. The Cullen/Reddy review is a mixed bag in this respect. Cullen has already made much of the way the review advocates a narrowing of the meaning of ‘national security”. Good, and not before time. The proposed extension of the powers of the Inspector General is also welcome; the current barriers to the I-G’s access to SIS/GCSB information has always been outrageous. Not much point in having a watchdog if it is always kept on a leash.

It is also welcome that the I-G will be able to investigate complaints from foreigners, even if upstream, the authorization process has been (deliberately) insensitive to their human rights. Yet to be meaningful, what these enhanced powers will also require is better funding – and more investigative staff – for the I-G’s office. It should be regarded as being the equivalent of the Police Complaints Authority, and funded and staffed accordingly.

On this crucial oversight issue, the most disappointing aspect of the Cullen /Reddy review has to do with the rampantly token changes that the review advocates ( paras 53-56 ) to the system of parliamentary oversight of the security services. Adding more members to a toothless committee and changing the chair is a totally inadequate response.

Tokenism though, is probably all that one should expect from a process set up to validate the GCSB’s prior transgressions. Those who remember Cullen’s enthusiasm for the misguided SIS crusade against Ahmed Zaoui – Cullen was Attorney-General at the time – will not be entirely surprised by this latest document.

Bernie Takes Michigan

The Bernie Sanders victory in Michigan shows that – finally – he can compete (and win) against Hillary Clinton in major northern industrial states that are ethnically diverse. Hitherto, Sanders success had been limited to small states with high concentrations of white voters (New Hampshire, Oklahoma) or in contests within or adjacent to his home state, Vermont. This time, he has showed he can win in large northern industrial states with significant black populations. That changes the whole picture.

To a New Zealander, the even more interesting aspect of yesterday’s triumph was the reason for it – basically, Sanders ran his whole campaign in Michigan against the Trans Pacific Pacific Partnership.

For example take a look at this Bernie ad, which screened in Michigan only a few days before polling day:

So called ‘Free trade” has decimated the jobs and communities that used to rely on a manufacturing sector that has since been outsourced to foreign countries. Under pressure from Sanders, Clinton has belatedly come out against the TPP, but she has proved to be really vulnerable (outside the South) on the ‘free’ trade question.

Nominally, unemployment in Michigan is down from its GFC heights – but those figures mainly reflect the prevalence of McJobs that are seen as no replacement to the better paid, more stable jobs and related family life that free trade has destroyed. Sanders’ success among black communities in Michigan has shown that even Clinton’s strong levels of black support can be over-ridden ( outside the South) by the anti-free trade message. Black communities in the industrial Midwest have also suffered from the job losses outsourced via NAFTA in the past, and with the TPP only promising more of the same.

Donald Trump of course, is appealing to precisely the same sense of outrage. Trump’s entire “Rustbelt Strategy” is based on his opposition to free trade in general, and to the TPP in particular.

His rhetoric of “Making America Great Again” is a lament for those lost jobs in the industrial Midwest, and is a sympathy pitch to the displaced. Rather than thinking Americans are crazy for voting for Trump we should – perhaps – consider whether they’d be even crazier to vote for the latest Establishment glove puppet to embody the trade policies that voters have been given such good reason to resent. Trump may be an offensive, dangerous demagogue – but his populism is grounded in an entirely valid sense of grievance.

And on to Ohio and Florida, on March 15 – which has always seemed like judgment day in this campaign. Look at the voter breakdown in Michigan ; it is almost identical to the demographic profile next door in rust belt Ohio….

For instance : the ratio of college-educated whites (40.3% Michigan, 38.7% Ohio) non college educated whites ( 36.4% Michigan, 41.3% Ohio) blacks ( 15.5%, 15.1% ) and Hispanics ( 3.2%, 3.4%) is almost the same. After Michigan, Sanders can now hope to run Clinton very, very close in Ohio as well. The uber-message is that when people are given the democratic chance to vote on the TPP, they vote against it in droves.

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