24 October 2014

Does Labour have leadership?

The election of a new Labour Party leader will occupy the political news headlines between now and the announcement of a result on 18 November. But already the phrase ‘Labour leadership’ sounds like an oxymoron. For instance, the opening of the new parliament lacked a confirmed leader of the Opposition thanks to Labour's new leadership election process. But, assuming that Labour will eventually get its house in order and return to being a serious contender for government (as history suggests it will), what are the challenges facing the next leader?
After David Cunliffe won the leadership in September 2013, Labour’s opinion polling went from low- to mid-30s down to the mid-20s, ending in their public humiliation with 25.1% of party votes. Given that Cunliffe is an intelligent and articulate man who performed very well in pre-election debates with Prime Minister John Key, this poor performance may seem hard to explain. But Labour was up against a Prime Minister who continues to enjoy strong support. They also suffered from uncertainty among centrist voters about the potential influence of the Greens in a Labour–Green coalition. But then the whole prospect became even more distasteful to voters once it was apparent that NZ First could have wielded greater bargaining power with Labour than the Greens. From there, with a push from Kim Dotcom, it was all downhill.
Like beauty, good political leadership is in the eye of the beholder. And voting Kiwis just didn’t like what they beheld on the Labour side of the political spectrum. Somehow, Labour has to find its way out of the ideological and electoral corner into which it has now painted itself. It will be a long hard slog to regain credible results in the opinion polls, let alone form a future government.
So far, each of the four candidates has been evaluated in terms of their past experience and sectional affiliations. But the winner of this ‘primary’ election needs to rise above his or her existing affiliations and demonstrate a breadth of vision that encompasses (not necessarily resolves) the party’s internal differences. To succeed in the long term, he or she should be able to project a similar inclusiveness to the public at large, and so start looking like a future Prime Minister.
The danger for Labour is that no single candidate may emerge strongly ahead on the first preferences. If two or three are polling initially at around the same level, that would indicate an underlying division of opinion. It can be especially damaging for the future leader if it becomes clear to all that he/she is preferred by only a minority of caucus members. The lack of support in caucus for former leader David Cunliffe, made manifest by the leadership election results, gave John Key an open goal to score points, almost daily, against his opponent.
On the positive side, Labour Party members and affiliates can take heart from the fact that they have four very competent and experienced individuals to choose from. As they are in effect choosing the leader whom they hope will go on to be the next Prime Minister, they should ask themselves which one would be best to take on Mr Key and even surpass him in popularity. They need to ask which candidate will win back the middle-of-the-road voters who either decided to stay with or defect to National or NZ First in September’s general election.
If governing the nation again is Labour’s objective, then stale ideologies and internal loyalties are not the criteria on which to choose their next leader.

17 October 2014

New Zealand can do more for the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine

Now that NZ has a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it is in a position to promote solutions to the humanitarian crisis in the eastern provinces of Ukraine (Donetsk and Lugansk).
The UN recently reports that "From mid-April to 6 October, at least 3,660 people were killed and 8,756 wounded in eastern Ukraine. Between 24 August and 5 September, there was also a sharp increase in detentions by the armed groups, and there were alarming reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, including mock executions and sexual violence. There were also reports of ill-treatment of those detained by Ukrainian armed forces and police."
In spite of the ceasefire, armed exchanges have continued. Fighting continued, for instance, over Donetsk airport (or what's left of it). "There have also been continued allegations of human rights violations committed by some volunteer battalions under Government control."
With winter coming, average temperatures will be below zero celsius, and many areas have no power or gas. Many people, especially the elderly, who are stranded in the region could die just from the cold.
New Zealand now has a responsibility to work with Russia and others on the UNSC to find a solution to this humanitarian crisis.The deeper political issues will have to wait until those who are at risk within the region have the opportunity to rebuild or to evacuate for somewhere safer. Both rebel and government volunteer militias need to be brought under control. And the disgusting attacks on unarmed innocent civilians have to stop.

Kiev has a right to defend its territorial integrity. But its violent strategy in Donbass has failed, and it's hard to see now how the people of that region will be able to trust the Kiev government – or not for a very long time. UN peacekeeping forces are needed to keep the combatants apart and to protect the innocent.

04 October 2014

The numbers do the talking

One of the big stories leading up to NZ's 20 September election was the effort to boost voter turnout. So, how well did that work? (I base my figures on percentage of the eligible population, and not percentage of those on the electoral rolls. The latter is more accurate, but not everyone enrols, so the former has greater validity.)
The 2011 turnout was 68.3%, and this time was 71.3%. Not a big increase, but at least it was not the decline that some had feared. Perhaps the weirdness of the campaign period (moments of truth, etc.) brought more out. The famous "missing million" of 2011 is now a "missing 975,000".
But the boost in numbers went largely to National. Conventional wisdom is that higher turnouts favour the left. But not this time.
Looking at raw numbers tells it all. The gains and losses in actual numbers of party votes between 2011 and 2014 goes like this:

National  +72865
Labour  –10403
Green  +9984

Thanks to the Greens, the Labour/Green combo declined by "only" 419 votes. This is a pathetic outcome for the left.
National has won over new voters (especially at the centre) even while in office. Labour has lost supporters in 3 elections in a row. This suggests that Labour needs to do much more than "stem the flow" in order to begin to challenge a National Party that is now looking for four terms in office.
Is any one of the contenders for the job of leader of the Labour Party up to the task?

It's a dull election after all

In spite of the bizarreness of the election campaign, the final count of results has produced an unexceptional, business-as-usual result.
The headlines following the count of special votes largely talk about National "losing" the single-party majority that it looked like they had on election night. They now have 60 seats out of 121, and so will need support from ACT and United Future – and likely the Maori Party too. So, incumbency reigns.
And National did not, after all, get the highest MMP party vote ever. In fact National's party vote has dropped slightly from 47.3% in 2011 to 47.04% this time.
It may be seem strange then that, despite a lower party vote, National now has one more seat than it did in the last parliament (up from 59 to 60). That can be explained by a larger percentage of 'wasted' votes this time, thanks to an increase in the Conservative party vote (from 2.65% in 2011 to 3.97% in 2014) and to the Internet/Mana loss. In sum, 6.24% of votes did not count this time, so that means that National's effective party vote was just over 50%.
Labour has ended up on 25.1% (compared with 27.5% in 2011), and the Greens on 10.7% (11.1% in 2011). The Greens are back at square one, with 14 seats, the same as in the last parliament. Labour has lost 2 seats. But Grant Robertson has to stop teasing David Cunliffe about getting "24%".
The big irony is the Internet/Mana result. In 2011, Mana on its own got 1.08% of the party vote, but Hone Harawira won Tai Tokerau, and so held the one seat. The alliance with the Internet Party led to 1.42%, a slightly better party vote, but Harawira narrowly lost his electorate seat to Kelvin Davis by 739 votes. Had Harawira won his electorate again, the Internet/Mana party would have 2 seats in parliament, just like the Maori party has. Indeed, Internet/Mana got a higher party vote than the Maori Party (on 1.32%).
United Future is a dog in the manger, though. While adding one seat to National's support base for a mere 0.22% of party votes sounds like good bang for the buck, UF has also caused the over-hang that makes 121 seats instead of 120, making it harder for National to form a majority. Would Key have been better off without Dunne?
In fact, would National have been better off by giving both UF and ACT the coup de grace? The answer is no: Between them, UF and ACT soaked up 0.91% of party votes. Once you have crossed the threshold to get seats, 0.9% only gets you one more list MP. Instead, National gets 2 house-pets to guarantee them confidence-and-supply support in government. Two for the price of one isn't bad, and there's no promise that those 0.9% of voters would all come National's way if UF and ACT did not exist.

28 September 2014

Cunliffe takes the Brash prize

We may not like it when appearances dominate substance in public affairs, but, when it comes to leadership, imagery really does appear to carry weight. The most famous example was the image of Don Brash literally walking the plank as doubts about his leadership circulated. Cartoonists loved it. Admittedly, that gaffe could be put down to sheer accident and lack of foresight. But Brash's recent self-portrait displaying his torso through an unbuttoned shirt offers no such excuse. The man isn't totally lacking in critical self-awareness (after all, he is capable of reflecting upon some lack of self-control in his sex life), but this particular choice of image reveals that he still hasn't learned much in the last decade. He could at least have removed his specs. Or just done the full monty... (perish the thought!)
That brings me to David Cunliffe and his Robinson-Crusoe-with-smart-phone pics. Photographer Peter Meecham got very lucky. Not only unbuttoned shirt, but rolled up trousers and bare feet too. So, how are we to interpret these photos, now that they are out there for the public to view? Do they depict a lonely and marooned loser who is reflecting ruefully on being ship-wrecked and having a hopeless future? Or should we sympathise with him? After all, time out close to the water gives a good opportunity to reflect. Who hasn't done that?
Whatever his reflections were, the best way to judge the man is by his subsequent actions. A week after (and not immediately after) the election, he resigned. But then he put his name forward again for re-election as Labour Party leader. This means that he must believe that he has enough support from affiliated unions and party members to have a chance of re-election, even after leading the party to its worst defeat ever. (I'm assuming that 1922 doesn't count, as Labour was only 6 years old then, had not yet been in office, and was on the rise.) It can only be another disaster for Labour if he were re-elected as leader, and a gift for Mr Key. I'll assume that party members have more sense than that, unless they prove me wrong. But Cunliffe's decision to put himself forward again suggests (to put this kindly) that he lacks critical self-awareness.

22 September 2014

John Key makes it three in a row as Labour goes backwards

See my article in The Conversation

19 September 2014

The next government's first big decision: War in Iraq

So far, Australia has committed 600 military personnel and eight fighter jets to support the US's attack on Islamic State positions in Iraq. France has committed itself to air strikes too.
Although New Zealand has little to offer in practical military terms, it won't be long till the Obama administration approaches our government for support. New Zealand's moral-political backing is perhaps of more significance than the frigate or the special forces team that it may be able to send.
The US has been sparing us this decision due to the election, and will leave the request until the new ministry is sworn in.
If there were to be a Labour-Green Cabinet, this would cause an immediate political crisis, of course. The Greens would be implacably opposed, and Labour would be split internally over the issue. But that's not likely to be the post-electoral scenario anyway.
A National-led government (regardless of which parties are its supporter or coalition partners) will no doubt commit to supporting the anti-IS campaign.
Perhaps that's something you may like to think about before you vote!

What will a National/NZ First government look like?

Going by the opinion polls, it looks like National will form the next government with some kind of deal with NZ First. It's misleading to call Winston Peters a 'kingmaker,' though. It will work the other way around, as Winston will not have a choice. Key will be 'crowning' Peters.
The nature of the agreement between the two parties will depend upon the numbers of seats that the two parties hold, and on the bargaining power held by Peters. It will also depend on what Peters wants to get out of his negotiations. He often says that policy is what matters to him, but his track-record shows that office-holding counts.
So, the deal could be as loose as a confidence-and-supply agreement with a ministerial portfolio or two for NZ First, through to a formal coalition agreement with shared seats in the Cabinet. The latter could be fraught with tensions, as in 1996–8, and would depend upon a good working relationship between Key and Peters.
If National's numbers in the House turn out to be strong, NZ First could be limited to simply supporting National on confidence and supply (or even just agreeing to abstain on such votes), in return for some policy concessions. But this looks less likely, as Peters will probably be in a strong enough position to negotiate a firmer deal than that.
At his relatively advanced age, Peters must be looking to his legacy and reckoning that this may be his last chance to really shine on the political stage. He will want to be seen to be the responsible senior statesman. I doubt that that he'll play up and cause uncertainty.

16 September 2014

A beginner’s guide to New Zealand’s strangest election

See my article in The Conversation.