15 July 2014

Should all parties tell us who they would work with in government?

In New Zealand we watch elections as if they were horse races. Some of us even place bets. The big question, however, is not ‘Who will win?’ but ‘Who will form the government after the election?’
The party or coalition of parties that proves that it commands the confidence of the House of Representatives gets to form the next government. Any government must have the numbers in the House to defeat a vote of no confidence in it. It is conceivable that the party that got the most votes could end up in opposition. It all depends on the numbers that can be mustered.
So, before each election there is intense interest in which parties may be willing to work together to form a government, once the voters have cast their ballots.
This game of positioning began relatively early this time around, with Winston Peters announcing in October last year that he would not be doing any pre-electoral deals with any parties. As a small centrist party, it makes sense that he should keep his bargaining options open to negotiate on policy grounds with either of the major parties.
In January, National’s leader, Mr Key, announced that he would prefer to continue working with the incumbent support partners (ACT, United Future and Maori Party) and that the Conservatives too were a possibility.
Before the 2008 election, Mr Key emphatically ruled out working with NZ First. But this time around he’s not ruling them out. The reason for this change of attitude is obvious: National may simply have to work with NZ First after the coming election, like it or not, depending on the outcome of the election.
Labour, by contrast, has taken a ‘wait and see’ attitude. They rebuffed a proposal to run on the basis of a joint Labour–Green government-in-waiting, even though they know that a coalition with the Greens is the most credible option if they are to get into office. It was smart of the Greens to force Labour to show its hand on this. But Labour have been equally strategic in deciding that they can’t afford to bleed any more votes to the Greens by giving assurances that a coalition with them is a done deal.
There are other potential combinations to think about, of course. But a general point of contention seems to be whether a political party ought, or ought not, to lay its cards on the table before the election to show us, the electors, who they would be willing to work with in government.
Does it help the voters to know clearly in advance what kind of coalition they may be implicitly voting for when they vote for one party? Or, should the voter simply tick the box for his or her preferred party, and then let political leaders negotiate a deal once the results are known?
There is no right answer to this. The choices around the parties’ pre-electoral positioning are made on purely political grounds.
Approaching an election, statements by the political parties are naturally made with an eye on maximizing their votes. Each party has to make its own calculations about how plainly to spell out what it sees as its potential post-electoral options for forming or supporting a government. This is done without yet knowing the election results. But such pre-electoral statements can affect the election results, as some voters will react strategically to them.
National has the advantages of incumbency in office and riding high in the polls. It can afford the luxury of stating up front its preferred support partners.
Labour is in a more tightly competitive position for the centre and left-wing voters. It has a relatively large competitor for votes (the Greens) that it may also wish to collaborate with in office. Labour’s pre-electoral reluctance to campaign with the Greens is influenced by the likelihood that, if Mr Cunliffe were to find himself in a position to form the next government, this may also require NZ First’s involvement.
Pre-electoral statements about which parties one would be willing to work with in government come with risks. A party could lose votes to a close competitor once voters take comfort from knowing that the two parties are prepared to collaborate after the election. Or, a party may lose votes because some potential supporters don’t like the coalition partners that it aims to work with. I daresay that the Internet Party lost some supporters due to its pre-electoral deal with Mana, but it may have gained others too.
Each party has to use its own political judgment about making, or not making, such pre-electoral statements or agreements. The voters can make their judgment known on election day, partly based on this information. After the election, the formation of the next government can begin.

11 July 2014

Is National boring its way back into office?

Two electoral issues around which there appears to be little disagreement are: first, that voter turnouts have declined in recent elections (from a high of 93.7 per cent of those enrolled in 1984 down to 74.2 per cent in 2011); and secondly, that this is a regrettable statistic and something should be done to get more people, especially the young, out to vote.
Some political pundits think that online voting will increase voter participation. But it’s a mistake, I believe, to place the blame on the means of voting. In our general elections, polling booths are easy to find, voting papers are easy to understand, and you don’t have to wait in a long queue. Electoral Commission surveys show high levels of voter satisfaction with the process itself.
So, voting is easy. The hard thing is to understand why we should bother, and for whom to vote.
Those who don’t vote tend to say that it makes little difference who is in power, or that they just don’t understand politics and public policy. What they see in the media looks superficial and is dominated by older people with big egos. It’s no wonder that young people have difficulty understanding the system of government and the importance of the actual policies that political parties wish to adopt.
This year’s election is to be held early – in September, not in November as is the norm. So the weather on election day is more likely to be cool and wet. And poor weather often reduces voter turnout. Just ask any Labour Party official about that. Higher turnouts occur when there is a real contest between parties and the electorate is strongly divided. The 93.7 per cent turnout in 1984 (in spite of bad weather on the day) was because most voters had simply had a gutsful of Robert Muldoon. And Labour was swept into power.
High turnouts normally favour the left-wing parties. So the National Party won’t mind at all if many young people stay away from the polling booths on 20 September. On the other hand, as National’s opinion-poll results have been averaging about 50 per cent lately, some of their potential supporters may decide that Mr Key doesn’t need their help.
So, how much does National have to worry about complacency among their supporters? National’s share of the party vote increased from 44.9 per cent in 2008 to 47.3 per cent in 2011. That looks impressive, but it was in the context of a fall in turnout. The actual number of voters who gave National a tick only increased by half of one per cent. In contrast, the numbers that voted either Labour or Green declined by 9.7 per cent. Anything that sparks a remobilisation of left-leaning voters could therefore lead to a very close race indeed.
In 2014, the Labour and Internet Mana parties have both talked up the idea of re-engaging the young and the disenfranchised (non-)voters, in order to expand the pool of left-wing votes. Labour’s former MP Shane Jones used to talk about 800,000 voters missing from the last election. So local party organisations on all sides will work hard to get their supporters out to the polling booths on the day.
National appears to be trying to reduce left-leaning voter turnout by making the election as boring and uncontroversial as possible. They offer no potentially controversial policies like asset-sales this time around. Mr Key says that National will go to the electorate to seek approval for his government’s past achievements. Full stop. No mention of GCSB legislation or asset-sales. No bold promises either.
A complacent electorate that is simply bored with or confused about politics and sees no urgent contest of ideas, policies or personalities will vote in relatively low numbers. For National to regain office they need to avoid controversies that might stir up support for the left, and to battle electoral complacency among those who are content with the status quo.
Of course, events between now and the election could upset that plan. Something galvanizing could come up before 20 September. But not if Mr Key can help it.

22 June 2014

Time to consider full state funding of political parties?

Mr Donghua Liu's claims of making large donations to the Labour Party are (as I write this) under dispute by party officials who say they can find no record of them. But there is no doubt about a $22,000 donation to the National Party in 2012. Either way, these donation scandals are embarrassing to both parties. Under Labour, Mr Liu gained residency, and under National, citizenship. Both parties are now being interrogated over Mr Liu's donations. For embarrassing donations, though, you can't beat that made by Mr Louis Crimp to the ACT Party in 2011. That was a cool $125,520, and then Mr Crimp was quoted by the NZ Herald as saying things that can only be classified as racist. Mr Crimp apparently believed that ACT would stop special treatment for Maori, but, as far as I can tell, his investment has not paid off.
Any large donation could be interpreted as an attempt to 'buy influence' in some manner. And not many people can afford to make donations of the size that Crimp or Liu have made. Not many people get the direct access to politicians that Liu is reported to have had. Mr Liu has stated, however, that his donations were made "in good faith without any expectation." He suggests that he may have been singled out due to his being Chinese. The fact that his residency and citizenship were granted by ministerial discretion and "against official advice" may of course be purely incidental.
One response to all of this is: "so what?" The big donations are publicly disclosed, so we should leave things alone. Political parties also receive direct and indirect support through parliamentary-services and electorate-office funding, and contributions to electoral campaigns, and that's quite enough tax-payer money. There are limits set on the amounts parties can spend on election advertising. So it could be argued that, in this country, you can't just 'buy' an election result (we the people decide), or 'buy' the policy decisions you want (no matter how much a donor gives, a government has to act within the law, including laws against corruption).
At present, we have a mix of private-donor and public funding of the parties. But a shift to full state funding would, some argue, put an end to the unfairness by which some parties (like ACT) get large donations and others very little, tilting the playing-field. State funding within a clear set of parameters would level that out.
Many sceptical New Zealanders would find the idea of paying more public money to political parties a hard one to swallow, I suspect. And others have argued that full state funding (and a ban on private donations) would mean that parties would become more disconnected from their constituencies. Fund-raising events are a lively part of the activities that keep politicians in touch with the people they represent, and they allow supporters to connect directly with their party leaders and MPs.
I would encourage more people to contribute small amounts regularly to the party of their choice (not necessarily as a full party member), and that would mean parties would have less reliance on the wealthy donors. Ten or twenty dollars a month are within the 'anonymous' bracket. It's better to have parties dependent on a large number of regular contributors than to go all out to schmooze a few rich donors.

08 June 2014

Will ACT return from the grave on 20 September?

Short answer: probably it will.
By announcing his resignation from Parliament (effective appropriately from Friday the 13th), Mr Banks has done all concerned a big favour. The House will have time enough to vote against a by-election in Epsom. (I can't see the Opposition being bloody-minded enough to insist on one.) And John Banks can be scripted out of the political soap opera.
Ever since the brutal take-over staged by Banks and Don Brash, the ACT Party has been headed down-hill. The PR disaster caused by the infamous cuppa tea meeting before the 2011 election cost National a significant percentage of votes and helped to propel Winston Peters back into the House. A one-seat wonder, ACT supported the National-led government, as planned. But it wasn't long before its sole MP was embroiled in controversy over donations to his earlier unsuccessful bid for the Auckland mayoralty. First he had to resign from his ministerial post, and now, found guilty of filing a false return, he has chosen to resign as an MP.
That's all history though. Banks's successors – Jamie Whyte as leader of ACT and David Seymour as candidate for Epsom – are fresh new faces. They are bringing ACT back to its ideological roots: oligarchic rule by private enterprise, fewer public services for the poor and the middle-classes, harsher welfare laws, tougher sentences, unregulated urban development, less government, more market, and a low and flat tax structure. All the stuff that most Epsom voters must love (well, they vote for it), and about enough to earn ACT one per cent of the party vote nation-wide.
Political memories are short. And the election is more than three months away. That's close to eternity in twitter-time. Moreover, National are embarrassed by their lack of likely support parties for post-electoral negotiations. It's highly likely, therefore, that, once again, Epsom voters will get the nudge-and-wink from Mr Key: don't vote for the National candidate, vote for the ACT guy. Doesn't matter who he is. Just vote and forget.
So, as the undead, it's likely that ACT will rise from the grave on 20 September to haunt the House for at least three more gruesome years!

06 June 2014

New Zealand's pathetic position on the crisis in Ukraine

According to Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully, New Zealand is ‘alarmed’ and ‘deeply worried’ about the situation in Ukraine. Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea led to (wait for it…) travel sanctions against certain unnamed individuals. Unluckily for those individuals, they won’t be enjoying a holiday in New Zealand any time soon.
Like most western leaders, McCully calls on the Russians to take steps to reduce tensions in Ukraine. And indeed the Russians do bear considerable responsibility for this crisis. After all, they have effectively (and illegally) annexed Crimea, and it appears that volunteer and possibly mercenary fighters and armaments are pouring across the Russian border into eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, on the other side, the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the BBC that his government is providing equipment, advice and (above all) moral support to the Ukrainian military. This news will strike fear into the hearts of all unarmed civilians in eastern Ukraine – in cities such as Sloviansk, Lugansk and Donetsk – who are at risk of being killed or injured whenever the Ukrainian military strikes. Innocent people are living in fear of the armed forces that normally should be there to protect them.
To add to their woes, the extremist (no, let's be frank, fascist-terrorist) Right Sector militia operate at will in eastern Ukraine with little intervention from the Ukrainian armed forces. They have been accused of killing civilians in Sloviansk, attempting to seize the nuclear power plant in Zaporozhye, and shooting 30 conscript soldiers for laying down arms and defecting to the local civilians. Any of these accusations could be questioned for their veracity, but none of them has made it into the western press, as far as I know.
In the middle of this (and arguably holding the trump card) are the rebels. As far as the leader of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donestk is concerned, the Ukrainian armed forces are invaders. He says that dialogue to end the conflict is possible, but the exchange of prisoners and the withdrawal of all Ukranian military units from 'our territory' would have to be on the table. Significantly, he sees Russia as the essential intermediary for any such talks.
Sending Mr Putin to the naughty chair makes good press for western leaders and diplomats, especially around the D-Day commemorations. But clearly Russia has to play a meaningful role in any efforts to resolve this appalling crisis.
And, getting back to New Zealand, Mr McCully did, after all, call upon the Russians 'to take steps to reduce tensions and to engage in consultations with other affected parties to achieve this objective.'
But New Zealand could do so much more than this, given its neutral position, peace-keeping reputation and present candidacy for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. Here are a few suggestions that I believe New Zealand could put forward:
The Security Council should seek to negotiate an agreement with Kiev and Moscow to withdraw all Ukrainian forces from the eastern provinces. In their place, an international peace-keeping force (which could include New Zealand soldiers) needs to be deployed. All future talks need to involve the self-proclaimed People's Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk if they are to be effective, even though this may be distasteful to Kiev. Wishful thinking won't make them go away. The Right Sector militia has to be contained and controlled so that it can no longer terrorise the region. A constitutional resolution needs to be sought for long-term peace. Whether Kiev likes it or not, this may have to involve greater autonomy, if not self-rule, in the east.
So, my message to Mr McCully is that being 'alarmed' and 'worried' is not good enough. Get off your political butt, pick up the hot-line and do something constructive about this. Election or no election, now is the time to act on this one.

28 May 2014


The choice of Laila Harre as leader of the Internet Party will go a long way towards making sense of the pre-electoral alliance with the Mana Party, as announced on Tuesday.
On paper, there is little ideological and policy compatibility between the Internet and Mana Parties – so far. And initially Sue Bradford captured the attention by walking out of the Mana Party over the alliance, arguing that the Mana Party was only being used by a wealthy foreigner who would not respect their founding kaupapa.
Ms Harre, however, has impeccable left-wing, trade-union credentials to bring to the Internet party. Her strong political nous and experience will help to fill a major gap for the Internet Party. She will bridge the apparent ideological gap between the two parties. But I doubt that many of the 'young and disaffected' that this new party is supposedly targetting will recognise Laila's name.
The danger is that the alliance between the two parties could tarnish both of their brands, and confuse voters about what they actually stand for politically. That risk has still to be managed, but Laila Harre's appointment does help to give an initial impression of a closer compatibility between the two. How compatible Hone and Laila will be as personalities is another question, but one can easily imagine more troublesome partnerships. And it is most important that the limelight be taken off Kim Dotcom (if that's possible!), as he is not able to stand as a candidate.
The Internet Party has some policy development to do in order to bring its present manifesto up to speed on social policy and Maori issues. Policy-wise, they still do not look like an obvious partner for Mana. The alliance agreement requires that the Internet Mana Party will have 'an agreed policy platform' that all its MPs commit to. But it also permits each component party to develop its own policies, with consultation with the other party.
A critical question will be whether the Mana/Internet alliance can inspire young people, especially the less well-off, about an exciting new approach to politics that buys into the world that youth live in today, and that will improve their participation and opportunities in the digital world of the future. Will the young get the message? With the Internet Party's online communication skills, it's likely that they will get the message.
In electoral terms, it appears that Laila will be back in parliament after the next election as Internet Party leader. The Internet Party's resources may well be useful in the Waiariki electorate, giving a boost to Mana's Annette Sykes, and presenting a real challenge to the Maori Party's Te Ururoa Flavell.
So, three or four Internet Mana seats is a conceivable result just for starters, provided the deal doesn't backfire due to voter confusion or cynicism.

27 May 2014

Hone and Kim: Friends with benefits?

Hone Harawira's Mana Party and Kim Dotcom's Internet Party have announced a pre-electoral 'formal alliance.' This is a 'cash for coat-tails' deal, by which Mana benefits from Kim Dotcom's cash, and the Internet Party stands to get one candidate into Parliament thanks to Mr Harawira's (probable) hold on the Te Tai Tokerau seat. To get a second seat, this alliance will still need to get over 1.6% of the party vote, which is achievable (especially given Dotcom's money), but not guaranteed. Mana won only 1.08% of the party vote in 2011.
The identity of the Internet Party's leader is (as I write this) yet to be revealed, but that choice will make a difference to voter perceptions of this alliance.
In terms of policies, it's hard to see these two parties as ideologically compatible, and they appear to be united largely by a desire to win a seat or two each and to help bring about a change of government. Dotcom's antipathy to John Key is legendary.
But a long-term alliance (as opposed to a temporary, pre-electoral deal for the sake of seats) would require a much more convincing platform that somehow melds Mana's commitments to the poor and dispossessed with Internet Party's commitment to a freewheeling, globalised, internet-savvy future. But perhaps long-term commitment is not the aim.