28 March 2015

Winston Peters humiliates National up north

Winston Peters has proved political pundits spectacularly wrong in Northland, his home turf. A decisive 54% vote in his favour means that the latest pre-election opinion polls were close to the mark, and that early predictions of an easy National win were proven drastically wrong.
On the prediction-trading website iPredict, the price for betting on ‘National candidate to win Northland by-election’ dropped from around 90 cents in the first week of March to well below 20 cents by the Saturday of the by-election itself. Smirks on National supporters’ faces turned to alarm as opinion polls first showed Winston level with National’s newby candidate, and then had him streaking ahead. Quite a few people blew their money by punting on National. So, what went wrong?
In the 2014 General Election, only about 4,500 (12.7%) gave their party vote to NZ First. Because NZ First did not have a candidate in that election, which candidate did they vote for as a ‘second preference’? About two thirds of them ticked the Labour candidate. Far fewer went to National’s candidate and to the others. So, on that base of support for NZ First, there was a stronger cross-affiliation between Labour and NZ First than between National and NZ First.
But, because National’s former MP, Mike Sabin, got 52% support as candidate, in order to win the by-election, Mr Peters had to pull votes away from National as well as from the left – or at least hope that a lot of erstwhile National supporters stayed at home. The left-wing voters, if they ganged up against National and voted for Peters, were not numerically strong enough to get Peters across the line on their own.
So, Peters had the challenge of appealing to both the right and the left of the spectrum. And he totally out-classed the inexperienced Mr Osborne on the campaign trail. NZ First lacked National’s street-level organizational forces, including troops brought in from Auckland, to rally voters on the day. So, the result in favour of Mr Peters has to be attributed to his own widely recognised persona, his street-level campaigning, and his effective use of the media.
On the day, though, the turnout was significantly lower than at the general election, so it’s hard to draw quick conclusions about how many voters switched allegiances and how many just stayed at home. But it’s safe to say that those who had previously supported the Labour candidate, Willow-Jean Prime, mostly voted tactically for Peters, and probably many Green supporters did too. Peters probably stole quite a number of erstwhile National supporters, but many of them perhaps didn’t vote at all. The differences from last year’s Labour, Green and ‘other’ voters almost add up to Winston’s 15,359 votes. But it seems unlikely that he did not also benefit from a good number of defections from the National camp.
Labour came in for criticism for doing an Epsom-style maneuver, more or less telling their supporters not to waste their votes on the Labour candidate, but to give it to Peters. Labour were already committed, however, to fielding a candidate by the time it became obvious that Peters could win. So Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime could not be withdrawn from the ballot. In any case, Labour needed to keep their candidate and their party in the race, and not to let down their staunchest supporters.
The by-election would not have happened at all had National not fielded Mark Sabin as their candidate at last year’s election. His standing down, under unexplained circumstances, triggered the by-election. National thought they could sleep-walk to victory, but they hadn’t counted on Peters as a potential candidate. The National Party ended up in the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t corner, thanks to a series of electoral blunders. And they couldn’t fight their way out of it because their candidate simply couldn’t overcome the Peters effect.

15 March 2015

Did Winston write the 1080 letters?

Minister for primary industries, Nathan Guy, did quite a nice job of explaining the government's handling of the 1080 blackmail on Q&A. But he is doing all the explaining. And, as they say in politics, explaining is losing. Meanwhile the blackmailer (or 'traitor', or 'terrorist'?) is either watching with glee as this all erupts, or (if he/she/they has/have half a conscience) wishing that the earth would open up and swallow him/her/them.
There is now a strong body of opinion that the government should not have announced the threat at all, especially as we were simultaneously assured that the matter is under control and there is no present danger to public health.
Rather like the blunder of bribing Northlanders with promises of new bridges (which National will have to build now, regardless of whether they win or lose Northland!), the government has now put itself in a completely ridiculous position having gone public over the 1080 threat. It has to defend a decision that could adversely affect their natural constituencies (dairy farmers, producers and exporters), a decision that probably didn't need to be taken at all, as it responds to what was most likely an empty threat! In any case, 1080 drops will not be affected by this blackmail attempt, as that would surely be 'bowing down to terrorism'! So, why the urgent public announcement for something that they want us to believe can only be a fizzer?
This looks like a government that has lost its will to govern, has no new ideas, is constantly on the defensive, and ends up scoring own goals.
Oddly enough, though, NZ First policy is even more anti-1080 than the Greens are. Winston Peters has some work to do to prove that he isn't the blackmailer! Now, there's a conspiracy theory!

02 March 2015

MPs' salary raise: Now you see it, now you don't.

John Key is taking desperate measures to kill the negative public reaction against 5.5% pay-rises for MPs as set down by the Remuneration Authority.
The Government's hastily announced amendment of the Remuneration Authority Act will link MPs' salary increments to those in the wider public sector. It will be retrospective (to block the back-dated 5.5% increase), and will be passed under urgency. Mr Key and his Cabinet may genuinely believe that the Remuneration Authority's determination was unmerited, too large compared with average income trends in the economy, and hence only advancing inequality in society. But this sudden reversal smacks of desperation. A politically embarrassing pay-rise for MPs has to be blocked, it appears, without delay.
Ironically, the Remuneration Authority was set up to make politicians' pay determinations independent of the politicians themselves. Now we see the most heavy-handed political interference possible in a democracy: parliament will just legislate the embarrassment away. Proposing retrospective legislation shows that Key is willing to break constitutional convention to achieve his aims. And yet, no-one has bothered to prove that the Authority got it wrong and made an unreasonable decision. It just sounded bad on TV, that's all. So, Parliament will simply over-ride it, retrospectively. It will be interesting to see if any party dares to vote against the proposed amendment!
It's still a moot point, though, as to how much MPs should be paid. They are not employees; there is no job description and no person specification. They are not hired; they are elected. They work long hours, are almost always 'on call', and sacrifice a lot of family time. They have to 'reapply' for the role every three years, so there's no long-term job security. Mr Key makes a good point that one doesn't go into public life just for the money, but, on the other hand, it is a demanding job that requires many skills. It does seem to warrant a higher income than most of us get.
The Government wants to legislate away the Authority's discretion and to peg future increases solely to the average public sector pay increase for the previous year. This sounds quite reasonable – at first hearing. But one can foresee a problem: If, for some reason in future, it is widely agreed that MPs' salaries have not risen fast enough (say, for recruitment and retention reasons, and given the responsibilities entailed), then Parliament may want to repeal the presently proposed amendment and loosen up the Authority's discretion again. But no political party will have the courage to propose that, due to the inevitable public backlash. As they say, rushed law is likely to turn into bad law.
We want to see our most talented people in Parliament, but the best candidates are not all independently wealthy. So, will the proposed amendment to the law aid in encouraging the best leaders to run for office in the future?

01 March 2015

Northland voters carry big responsibility

The Northland by-election happens on 28 March. Under normal conditions, the National candidate, Mark Osborne, could sleep-walk to victory, given the 9,300 majority for former National MP, Mike Sabin, at the 2014 General Election. But, now that Winston Peters has put his hat in the ring, things have changed. If Mr Peters were to win, and were then to resign as a list MP, he would re-enter Parliament as the MP for Northland, and his list seat would be taken by the next willing candidate on NZ First's party list. Hence, NZ First's seats would increase by one, and National's decrease by one.
That would change the balance of power in the House, leaving National more heavily reliant on United Future and Maori Party for passing laws. (I assume that ACT is pretty much National's lapdog.)
But what are Mr Peters' chances of winning? He has the charisma and the name recognition, and the advantage of being a Whananaki boy.
NZ First didn't run a candidate in Northland at the last election, but they picked up 4,500 party votes anyway. That's not a bad start. But it looks like most of those NZF voters gave their candidate vote to Labour's Willow-Jean Prime (who is re-contesting at the by-election).
Assuming Northland gets the same level of voter turn-out at the by-election, then we could generously assume that Winston starts with 4,500 voters in his pocket. (And that's also assuming that none of those will vote for the Labour candidate). To win, then, Peters has to take roughly 7,000 voters away from the National candidate, reducing National's vote from 18,200 to 11,200, and increasing his own from 4,500 to 11,500.
Once Northland's more conservative, National-supporting voters realise the consequences of voting for Winston, it seems highly unlikely that 7,000 of them will follow him like some Pied Piper. There is not enough popular discontent with the Key government at this stage for those otherwise loyal to Key to want to stymie him, or 'to send him a message', at a by-election.
Of course, Peters could pick up a good number of those who otherwise vote Labour or Green, seeing in him an opportunity to undermine the Key government. But, at the last election, the Labour and Green candidates added together got about 12,600 votes. That's considerably fewer than Sabin's 18,200. Even if we assume that Mr Peters' 'handicap' starts at (a very generous) 8,000 voters taken from the left, he still has a huge job winning more than 5,000 from the right at the same time.
One learns from the past not to underestimate Mr Peters. But, on this occasion, I doubt that he can pull it off. The safe money would be on a National win. IPredict says it all.
If he loses, Mr Peters at least gains a chance to attract attention to himself. That may help him to build up some support for the 2017 general election, by which time his embarrassing defeat will have been forgotten anyway. It will be interesting to see whether he pitches to the left or to the right of the Northland electorate. He can lean either way.

27 February 2015

Politicians' pay rises an annual embarrassment

How much should Members of Parliament be paid – and who decides anyway?
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has openly disagreed with the recent decision that lifts the basic salary of a backbench Members of Parliament 5.5 per cent, from $147,800 to $156,000, while his own salary rises by $23,800 to $452,500.
So, the Prime Minister still earns less than many chief executives, including many of those in the state sector. But these salary rises are above both inflation and increases in the median income, and they come just after the minimum wage has been raised by a mere 50 cents per hour (3.5 per cent). Public cynicism towards politicians and resentment about inequality have caused a political backlash against the announcements of rises in MPs’ salaries.
For very good reasons, though, MPs’ salaries (and those of judges and elected local government politicians) are set by an independent Remuneration Authority. For obvious reasons, we do not want politicians setting their own salaries. And therefore, for exactly the same reasons, politicians should not interfere in the decisions of the Remuneration Authority, regardless of whether they think an increase is too small  – or in this case, too large.
But Mr Key has told reporters that he wrote to the authority urging it not to give MPs any salary increase at all. He argues that one should not be in politics for the money, and that there is no valid comparison with senior roles such as chief executives.
It is utterly inappropriate for the Prime Minister to attempt to influence the authority’s salary determinations, however. Mr Key is eager to dodge any political bullets that may be aimed at him due to his massive pay-rise. But he should not be trying to influence the authority’s decision, even if his aim is to have no pay increment at all. The point of having the Remuneration Authority is to keep this decision out of the hands of politicians themselves and to distance it from political interests.
For many taxpayers, it might be more satisfactory to give MPs no salary rise, or only one that aligns with average income increments in the economy at large. But the Remuneration Authority employs a widely recognised "job sizing" method, and it is required by law to take into consideration salaries for comparable occupations, fairness to the MPs and to taxpayers, the nature of the job itself, and the state of the economy. To make an informed judgement on the pay-rise determination of the authority, and whether it is reasonable and lawful, we would have to read through the information that the authority had before it.
Parliament could amend the law that governs the Remuneration Authority to more tightly restrict future pay increments. The Prime Minister has hinted at exactly that. One can imagine the interesting debates that would occur in the House over such a Bill. It would amount to political interference again.
Given though that future circumstances are not always foreseeable, it may be unwise to tie the Authority’s hands any more tightly than they are at present. And repealing such an amendment, if it turned out to be impractical, would only add to the political wrangling.
The whole idea of having a Remuneration Authority was to prevent political interference in setting the salaries of elected representatives and judges.
If Mr Key and other MPs feel so strongly about the fact the increases they receive are regularly larger in percentage terms than those received by ordinary New Zealanders, including pensioners, beneficiaries and those on the lowest pay rates, then they might like to consider the means by which that disparity occurs. That would include the National-led government’s recent amendments to employment law, its discouragement of collective wage bargaining, and the decisions Ministers make on pensions, welfare and minimum pay rates.
Until then, if the Remuneration Authority makes a determination that happens to embarrass the Prime Minister, that is just too bad for him. He will have to take the money and smile.

10 February 2015

The Big Issues for 2015

Waitangi Day being behind us means that the political 'On' button has been switched to 'Full'. So, here is my pick of the 3 big political issues for 2015:
1. Housing, housing, housing. This means housing supply and affordability (especially in Auckland and Chch), of course. Can government do anything serious at all to get Auckland off the 'world's most unaffordable' list? But, 'housing' also means the Key government’s plan to sell off 'social housing' (aka state houses) to NGOs and iwi. This will make the government a target for the opposition. State housing is ‘close to the heart’ for Labour, and it's a critical factor in getting people out of poverty, ensuring good health and education, etc. But, it's essentially a ‘welfare’ issue for middle NZ. So, Labour will also have to push hard on housing supply and affordability for those on lower to middle incomes who are struggling to own their own homes. The election and leadership change put paid to Labour's capital gains tax policy. Will they stick to the 100,000 homes 'KiwiBuild' policy?
2. Security and identity. Every nation must ask itself how it presents itself, symbolically and militarily, to the world at large. The ANZAC centenary and the first flag-change referendum (in late 2015, to choose from 3 or 4 alternatives) will lead to reflection on national identity. The PM has staked a lot of political capital (and $26million of taxpayers' money) on the two referenda. ANZAC ceremonies have a 'motherhood' tone to them, and not much opportunity for the Opposition to attack Key. So, this is his 'legacy' moment coming up. But it will also lead to debate about NZ at war, meaning normally other people's wars. (As an aside, I'd like us not to forget the centenary also of the Armenian genocide, which happened at the same time.) This links with the question of NZ's participation in the fight against ISIS. Recent diplomatic pressure from the UK shows that NZ’s contribution, while small, has an important political/moral supporting role. And especially with NZ on the UN Security Council at the moment. Opponents of NZ involvement will point to the critical situation that now prevails in Libya, for instance, to question the wisdom of western bombing raids against corrupt regimes. Similarly, they will argue that the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the power vacuum in western Iraq that, in turn, led to the success of ISIS, etc., and hence that further bombardment is futile and puts NZ at risk of retaliation. Why do we keep following the UK and US into futile wars? Key is already pointing to the barbarity of ISIS as his case for war: “We can’t stand by and watch…”. But, we have stood by watched other instances of barbarity… It's a predictable debate, and one on which the Greens will have the strongest running as an opposition.
3. The main political story to watch will be in the polling of the Labour Party and the performance of their new leader, Andrew Little. There have been some early positive opinion-poll results, but nothing to threaten Mr Key so far. Most Labourites are probably just relieved that, so far, Little hasn't stuffed anything up. The Key-Little contest has yet to play out, and punters will be watching them closely as they face off in the House over the coming weeks. It will be a long way back for Labour after their electoral disaster last year, and the next election is a long way off, but steady progress in the polls (at National’s expense) would be what they’re looking for. Good results for Labour, though, could also mean that the Greens (who are losing Russel Norman) stall at the 10% level, or decline, so the potential red–green coalition may be not much better off overall by year's end.

31 January 2015

Is NZ becoming like Russia?

The highly acclaimed (in the west) movie Leviathan depicts life in a Russian village as immoral, brutal, corrupt and despairing. It is nonetheless a beautifully realised movie. I highly recommend it.
The negative and bullying reaction to the movie from prominent figures in Russia is unfortunate, of course, but it does ironically reinforce the very issue that the movie successfully depicts. Because it drags in both the Orthodox Church and the State, Leviathan has been described by one critic as a "filthy libel against the Russian church and the Russian state." It has been described as "evil" and as having no aesthetic merit. Because of Russian law, the swearing in it now has to be censored for Russian audiences (who I'm sure never use such words, ever.)
According to the Guardian, the Russian culture ministry was 'considering a ban on any films that “defame the national culture,” threaten the country’s unity or “undermine the foundations of constitutional order”.'
The movie did receive some state funding, moreover. That fact, along with the negative responses from authorities, reminds me of the way in which state apparatchiks and National sycophants in NZ were so swift and so nasty in reacting against comments made recently by Eleanor Catton about NZ being led by profit-hungry, anti-intellectual neoliberals etc. Even the Taxpayers' Union had to get in on the act. The resemblance with Russia is too close for comfort.
The only problem I have with Eleanor's comments is that she should have used the term "neo-authoritarian" rather than "neo-liberal".