New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern says turning back of China-bound flight not a red flag for ties

WELLINGTON (REUTERS) – An Air New Zealand flight bound for Shanghai was turned back because of an “administrative issue” and the incident holds no political implications for ties with China, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday (Feb 11).

The flight, with about 270 passengers, left Auckland shortly before midnight last Saturday but turned around several hours into the journey and landed in New Zealand on Sunday morning, the national carrier, part-owned by the government, has said.

“I think it is important to be really clear and not confuse administrative and regulatory issues as issues to do with the relationship,” Ms Ardern told a weekly news conference.

“This was very much an administrative issue,” she added. “There’s an expectation that inbound aircraft be registered, that the flight in question had not fulfiled the administrative requirements.”

China’s foreign ministry has not made any comment yet.

Ms Ardern’s remarks came after some politicians and analysts questioned whether the incident pointed to broader issues in New Zealand’s ties to its key trading partner.

“We need to know what has happened here. Is it part of the ongoing deterioration in relations between this New Zealand government and China?” opposition National Party leader Simon Bridges wrote on social network Twitter on Sunday.

In November, New Zealand’s intelligence agency rejected the telecommunication industry’s first request to use Chinese telecoms giant Huawei’s equipment in its planned 5G mobile network, citing national security concerns.

That followed a defence policy statement in July, in which New Zealand said China’s rising influence in the South Pacific could undermine regional stability, and alluded to tension in the disputed South China Sea, sparking complaint from China.

“There’s a heightened degree of sensitivity around the relationship right now,” said Mr David Capie, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

“On a range of issues with China, this government has signalled it’s taking a different stance to its predecessor, so I think people are waiting to see if and how Beijing responds.”

The rescheduled flight landed in Shanghai on Monday, data from flight tracking website FlightAware shows.

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Massive bushfire in New Zealand still 'out of control'

WELLINGTON (DPA) – Firefighters were still struggling Thursday (Feb 7) to contain a huge blaze that broke out on Tuesday afternoon and was covering 1900 ha near Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island.

“We don’t have total control of that area, we’re just fortunate it didn’t actually grow yesterday,” Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s John Sutton told media on Thursday morning. “But I would expect by the end of the day, we’ll be able to say that we have containment,” he added.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who visited the region on Thursday, said seeing the fire up close was confronting.

“While I’m immensely relieved there’s been no loss of life and want to thank all of those involved in tackling this immense fire, it’s clear there are going to be some difficult times ahead until we get the fire fully under control and people back to their homes,” she said in a statement. 

So far emergency services confirmed that one property was destroyed while more than 400 people had to evacuate 183 homes when the inferno approached.

Richard Kempthorne, the mayor in the Tasman district in the north of New Zealand’s South Island, said evacuations would likely remain in place for a few days.

Investigators believe that a contractor ploughing a paddock in Pigeon Valley, about 30km from Nelson, accidentally started the fire.

No injuries have been reported but 13 sheep had to be put down.

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New Zealand swelters as 'extreme' heatwave hits

WELLINGTON (DPA) – The heatwave which sent records tumbling in Australia last week brought sizzling temperatures to its Pacific neighbour New Zealand on Monday (Jan 28).

“It’s been a hot day across New Zealand with temperatures reaching the mid 30s (degrees Celsius) and reliable private weather stations recording as high as 36 and 37 degrees in some parts of Hawke’s Bay in the North Island and 35 and 36 degrees in some parts of Marlborough in the South Island”, meteorologists Weather Watch said in a statement.

Alex Macmillan, a senior lecturer in Environmental Health at the University of Otago, urged people to take care in the unusually high temperatures.

“As we continue to see each year breaking new records for average and highest temperatures, climate change begins to take its health toll in the form of more days of extreme heat,” she said in a statement.

While New Zealand’s high temperatures were not likely to match Australia’s last week, the increased heat drew attention to what people are accustomed to and the importance of how buildings are designed.

Australia’s heatwave saw records set across many parts of the country, led to fires, left homes and businesses without power and caused tennis fans at the Australian Open to swelter in the Melbourne sun.

The national average temperature in New Zealand in 2018 made it the second warmest year on record, with the country also sweating through its hottest summer on record.

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'Pig' British tourists to be deported from New Zealand after theft, littering, not paying for food

WELLINGTON (AFP) – Members of a British family have been branded “worse than pigs” and face deportation from New Zealand after a spree of bad behaviour that left normally easygoing Kiwis outraged.

The family have been involved in a string of incidents in and around Auckland and Hamilton, including accusations of littering, assault, not paying for restaurant meals and intimidating behaviour.

Auckland mayor Phil Goff led national outcry at the tourists’ antics, demanding the police take action.

“These guys are trash. They are leeches,” he told a local radio station.

“If you say one time ‘I found a hair or an ant in my meal’ you’d believe it but they find it every meal that they have as a way of evading payment. That’s a criminal activity.

“They’re worse than pigs and I’d like to see them out of the country.”

New Zealand’s assistant general manager of immigration, Mr Peter Devoy, said the family had been issued with a deportation notice on the grounds of “matters relating to character”.

One 26-year-old member of the family on Wednesday (Jan 16) pleaded guilty to stealing NZ$55 (S$50.79) worth of goods from a petrol station.

The family attracted extensive media coverage in New Zealand after a video showed them leaving beer boxes, bottles and other rubbish strewn on a popular beach.

When a woman asked them to clean up their litter, a child in the group can be seen on video threatening he would “knock your brains out”.

Stuff Media reported that one family member hit a journalist with her shoe after being approached for comment.

A member of the family told the New Zealand Herald they have now decided to cut short their holiday and will return home this week.

Mr John Johnson insisted his family were of good stock, claimed his grandfather was the “10th richest man in England” and said he was made to feel “very unwelcome” in New Zealand.

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New Zealand hospitals crippled as thousands of doctors strike

WELLINGTON (REUTERS) – Nearly 80 per cent of junior doctors across New Zealand walked off work at public hospitals on Tuesday (Jan 15), after a breakdown in union talks with the government over working conditions and wages.

The strike spotlights the difficulties Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government faces in delivering on its promise to pour money into social services and rein in economic inequality when it took office in 2017.

The centre-left government’s traditional union support base says sluggish wage growth and soaring living costs have left workers struggling, with schoolteachers, nurses and court officials taking action last year to demand pay hikes.

“They want to have control over when we work, how we work and where we work,” said Dr Deborah Powell, the union’s national secretary.

“We tried to resolve this without a strike but we were left with no choice.”

More than 3,300 government-employed junior doctors, of a national tally of 3,700, are staying away from hospitals and clinics after the talks broke down last week.

Some junior doctors clustered at street corners holding placards calling for better working hours, but there were no major demonstrations.

Thousands of surgeries, non-essential appointments, and medical services have been cancelled, although emergency and life-preserving services will continue as senior doctors, who are not part of the strike, are asked to step in.

Government hospitals asked people to limit visits only to emergency situations.

Junior doctors, or resident medical officers (RMOs), want to stick with existing employment contracts, as they say new terms the government proposes would mean longer shifts and allow doctors to be moved to other hospitals without notice.

Their union, the New Zealand Resident Doctors’ Association (NZRDA), said it had been in talks with the District Health Board (DHB) for more than a year on the new terms, in which payment for overtime, weekend and night shifts also figured.

Reuters could not immediately reach DHB to seek comment.

The union has already called for a second 48-hour strike for Jan 29 and 30, which is likely to step up pressure on the government.

It is also holding talks to avert another strike this year by tens of thousands of school teachers after they rejected a pay offer.

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New Zealand warns Google over naming man charged with murdering British backpacker

WELLINGTON (AFP) – New Zealand warned Google to “take responsibility” for its news content on Wednesday (Dec 19), after the Internet giant broke a court order suppressing the name of a man charged with murdering a British backpacker.

An Auckland court granted the man interim name suppression this month but Google revealed his identity in an e-mail to subscribers of its “what’s trending in New Zealand?” service.

Justice Minister Andrew Little said the breach was unacceptable and he had made his views known to Google executives at a meeting in Parliament on Tuesday night.

While Google has argued the breach was inadvertent and it was unaware of the court order when the automatically generated e-mail went out, Mr Little said that was not good enough.

“I put the ball back in their court,” he told commercial radio on Wednesday.

“If they choose to set up their algorithms and distribute news, they’ve got to take responsibility for that.”

The case concerns the murder of British tourist Grace Millane, 22, whose body was found earlier this month just outside Auckland, resulting in a 26-year-old man being arrested and charged.

The case generated intense interest in New Zealand and Britain, where some media outlets have also named the accused, arguing that the court order does not apply to them.

Mr Little said he met two local Google executives, and a senior legal counsel from the company’s California headquarters joined them by video.

He said they appeared genuinely concerned about the breach and assured him they were working to ensure it did not happen again, with another meeting scheduled for early next year to assess their progress.

Mr Little conceded that controlling information on the Internet and social media was challenging but said court orders were made for a reason and must be respected.

“We can’t just stand back and say this is all too hard,” he said.

“The price of that (would be) we have to capitulate and concede what are very important rights that anyone going through the courts has.”

He said the case highlighted the potential need for an international agreement if Google “won’t do anything (or) can’t do anything” to resolve the issue.

“They can expect us to talk to partner countries around the world who have a similar interest… about reaching an agreement to enforce each others’ orders in each others’ countries,” he said.

“That may well happen inevitably anyway because it’s not just Google, there are others as well and we have to protect the integrity of our court system.”

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Outrage as six baby seals decapitated in New Zealand

WELLINGTON (AFP) – Six baby seals have been found decapitated in New Zealand in what wildlife rangers on Wednesday (Dec 19) branded a “cruel and senseless” act against a protected species.

The bodies of the New Zealand fur seal pups were found by a tourism operator on Monday at Scenery Nook near the South Island city of Christchurch, the Department of Conservation (DOC) said.

The department’s local operations manager Andy Thompson said the animals, which are protected under New Zealand law, were estimated to be 11 months old.

“Due to the disturbing, brutal and violent nature of this crime… it has been reported to the police,” he said.

Mr Thompson said the seals’ heads were nowhere to be found and it appeared they had been killed elsewhere then dumped in the beauty spot from a boat.

“We believe it’s incredibly unlikely sharks would have bitten the heads off six seals but left the bodies untouched,” he said.

Mr Thompson added the killers may have mistakenly believed the seals were competing with local anglers for fish.

“Regrettably, antagonism towards seals is often due to the misplaced belief that seals are eating large amounts of fish species valued for human consumption,” he said.

“That isn’t the case. Research shows 90 per cent of Banks Peninsula fur seal diet is made up of lantern fish which are not sought after in fishing.”

The DOC has appealed for information about the killings.

In 2011, a South Island teenager was jailed for two years after he admitted to bludgeoning 25 seals to death, including newborn pups.

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New Zealand ramps up diplomatic presence in Pacific where China influence rising

WELLINGTON (REUTERS) – New Zealand will send 14 new diplomats to the Pacific region next year, Foreign Minister Winston Peters said on Tuesday (Dec 4), the latest move by Western governments to counter China’s growing influence in the strategic region.

The additional staff will be based in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and the US state of Hawaii, Mr Peters said in a statement.

The move comes amid growing Western concerns about China’s influence in the South Pacific through its Belt and Road initiative, which dominated a recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit hosted by Papua New Guinea.

“These new positions are a first step in demonstrating New Zealand is committed to the Pacific to help it be … safer and more prosperous and enhancing New Zealand’s voice in a region,” Peters said.

The jobs will be advertised by the end of this year and the new posts expected to be filled by the middle of 2019, Mr Peters’ office said.

New Zealand is also sending four additional diplomats to Japan, the United States, the European Union and China to coordinate policy on the Pacific region, Mr Peters said.

The United States, Australia, France and Britain are opening new embassies, adding more staff and engaging with leaders of island nations more often in a bid to counter China’s rising influence.

Competition between the United States and China over the Pacific was thrown into focus at Apec in November with the United States and its Western allies launching a coordinated response to China’s Belt and Road programme.

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More than 140 whales die after stranding on New Zealand beach

More than 140 pilot whales have died after becoming stranded on a remote New Zealand beach.

A hiker discovered 145 pilot whales in two pods just over a mile apart late on Saturday on Stewart Island.

About 75 were already dead and conservation workers decided to euthanise the others due to their poor condition and remote location.

Only about 375 people live on Stewart Island, which is also called Rakiura. The whales were found at Mason’s Bay about 22 miles from the main township of Oban.

“You feel for the animals, it’s just a really sad event,” said Ren Leppens, the Rakiura operations manager for the Department of Conservation.

“It’s the kind of thing you don’t want to see. You wish you could understand the reasoning why the whales strand, so you could intervene.”

Mr Leppens said the whales were half buried in sand and not in good health, indicating that they had been there for perhaps a day before they were found.

He said staff shot the whales and the carcasses would be left where they were for nature to take its course.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, 10 pygmy killer whales were found stranded at Ninety Mile Beach on the North Island in an unrelated event. Two have since died, and staff plan to try and refloat the remaining eight.

Whale strandings are relatively common in New Zealand during the Southern Hemisphere spring and summer.

It is believed strandings can be caused by a number of factors, such as the whales trying to escape predators, falling ill, or navigating incorrectly.

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Opinion | Down Under, More Humane Private Prisons

About 35 years ago, America began turning prisons over to the private sector. The idea was that private prisons would be better and cheaper than government-run ones. “The great incentive for us, and we believe the long-term great incentive for the private sector, will be that you will be judged on performance,” Thomas Beasley said on “60 Minutes” in 1984. Mr. Beasley was president of the newly created Corrections Corporation of America.

Today about 9 percent of those behind bars in 28 states and in federal prisons — more than 128,000 people — are in prisons run by the private sector. More than half of all private prison beds are owned by CoreCivic, the new name for Mr. Beasley’s company. In addition to prisoners, about 70 percent of detainees in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody are in private facilities.

But private prisons have turned out to be neither better nor cheaper. They have about the same recidivism rates as their government-run counterparts — nearly 40 percent. And the Government Accountability Office has concluded time and again that there is simply no evidence that private prisons are more cost-effective than public prisons.

Private prisons have come under tremendous political scrutiny because the more people they house, the more they profit. Most corrections contracts with the private sector merely ask the private operator to replicate what the government is doing.

Given how entrenched the private sector is in American corrections, the private prison industry is here to stay. But there are ways to improve these institutions. Currently they are rewarded according to the number of prisoners they house. What if private prison contracts were structured so that they made more money if they treated prisoners humanely with policies that helped them stay out of trouble once released? Prisons exist to lower crime rates. So why not reward private prisons for doing that? Judge them on performance, as Mr. Beasley said.

America doesn’t use performance-based contracts. But Australia and New Zealand are experimenting with these models. Two relatively new private prisons have contracts that give them bonuses for doing better than government prisons at cutting recidivism. They get an even bigger bonus if they beat the government at reducing recidivism among their indigenous populations. And prison companies are charged for what the government deems as unacceptable events like riots, escapes and unnatural deaths.

Although the contracts set specific objectives, they do not dictate how prison operators should achieve them. “If we want to establish a prison that focuses on rehabilitation and reintegration, we have to give the private sector the space to innovate,” said Rachael Cole, a former public-private partnership integration director for the New Zealand Department of Corrections. “If we don’t give them the opportunity to do things differently, we will just get back what we already have.”

I recently visited New Zealand’s Auckland South Corrections Facility, a low-lying yellow and white brick structure in the shadow of the local airport. It houses 970 men and avoids many of the dehumanizing elements typical of prisons. Prisoners are called by their first names instead of by number, and corrections officers are called reintegration officers.

Serco, a British company that operates prisons globally, manages the facility for the New Zealand Department of Corrections under the country’s first public-private prison partnership. Men who follow the rules, complete educational and vocational programs, and keep a positive attitude can move from the more traditional housing units into six-room cottages designed to prepare them for life outside prison. The residences, which house almost a quarter of the prison’s population, resemble dorm-room suites with desks and bookshelves in the bedrooms, carpeted living spaces, couches, windows without bars, microwaves, refrigerators, cooking utensils and a flat-screen TV. The men cook their own meals and do their own laundry.

Even those who live in more conventional cells manage their own affairs through a computer system to schedule family visits, medical appointments and their daily responsibilities. Each prisoner has a résumé and is expected to apply and be interviewed for jobs at the facility. The prison also responds to the job market. Noticing the growth in barista careers, Serco opened two cafes in the prison to provide on-the-job training.

New Zealand’s prison population has soared in recent years, reaching an all-time high of more than 10,600. The country also struggles with racial disparities, with an overrepresentation of Maori — the nation’s indigenous Polynesian people — in their prisons. Maori make up only about 15 percent of the country’s population but half of New Zealand’s prisoners. Aiming to reduce the Maori’s recidivism rate, Serco and its partners worked with indigenous groups to build a cultural center for the Maori prisoners at the Auckland South prison. When I visited, one Maori prisoner, a bald, bearded man dressed in the prison uniform of gray shorts and a burgundy shirt, was cleaning the cultural center to prepare it for a meeting. He said that the center hosts events like the Maori New Year celebration and that family members frequently join.

“The prison is designed for rehabilitation,” said Oliver Brousse, chief executive of the John Laing Investment Group, a member of the consortium that built Auckland South. “The strength of these public-private partnerships is that they bring the best practices and innovation from all over the world, allowing local authorities to benefit from not only private capital but also from the best people and best practices from other countries.”

In Australia, the Ravenhall Correctional Center near Melbourne is a 1,000-bed medium-security facility with 51 buildings spread across six acres. There is no razor wire. The prison is operated by the GEO Group, a global prison firm (with most of its facilities in the United States), under a partnership with the Victoria state government. Men live in five communities in small buildings similar to college dorms. Social workers and other clinicians meet with the men inside the communities; overall, the prison has more than 70 clinical programs. When I visited, a group of men whose good behavior had allowed them to progress to living in four-bedroom suites were making sandwiches for lunch and contemplating stir-fry for dinner.

“What makes Ravenhall different is that I didn’t think of it much as a jail,” said a man named Cameron, who was released in April and now works as a landscaper for Rebuild, a Y.M.C.A. program that trains prisoners in construction work and hires some of them when they leave the prison. “It is a place to be if you really want to change. You had to either be in a program or in education. You can’t just stay in the cottage and do nothing.”

Even the men who haven’t yet made it to these cottages live in more humane quarters than exist in most American prisons. Instead of bars on windows, there is thick glass, providing more natural light and a better view of the outside.

As in New Zealand, indigenous people in Australia are overrepresented in the prison system. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are only 2 percent of the adult population but account for more than a quarter of the incarcerated population. Ravenhall has six staff members who work primarily with indigenous prisoners to reconnect them with their cultural heritage. The programs also help the men to be better fathers and to recover from trauma.

The GEO Group decided that to cut recidivism, it needed to continue working with prisoners once they were out. At the Bridge Center, families meet with social workers to discuss what life could be like when their loved ones leave prison and return home. And those released from Ravenhall can meet with the same clinicians they might have bonded with while incarcerated, work with staff to find housing and in some cases receive vouchers to cover three months’ rent.

These prisons are so new — Ravenhall opened less than a year ago — that we don’t yet know if the system works, but corrections departments in both countries are optimistic. Auckland South opened in 2015, and an evaluation of Auckland South’s initial success in reducing recidivism will likely be released later this year.

If the prisons in Australia and New Zealand prove successful, could a similar approach work in the United States? It would require getting beyond simplistic views of private prisons, recognizing that their failures could be a result of the incentives they receive. And it would involve a leap of faith to allow the private sector some flexibility in how it chooses to reduce recidivism.

“This partnership is about moving away from the prescribed way of doing things,” said Jeremy Lightfoot, deputy chief executive of the New Zealand Department of Corrections, told me in his office in Wellington in July. “This prison is in our network. If it is succeeding, then we are succeeding.”

In America, the government tends to rely on the private sector only when it needs capital. In Australia and New Zealand, governments partnered with private industry to design the contracts themselves and fashion innovative practices to reduce recidivism.

“What you have to realize is that we are human beings as well,” Cameron said. “If you put the boys in the cage and treat the boys like an animal, they will think they are animals. But if you put them in an environment where things are peaceful and they are treated like humans, they can change.”

Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at the N.Y.U. School of Law.

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