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.

15 September 2014

Snowden steals the show

Undoubtedly the most interesting of the presenters at Kim Dotcom's "Moment of Truth" was Edward Snowden. He offers an important insight into the systems that our government is a party to, and has been a party to for many years. That includes under Labour.
His most important political point is that the public need to be informed about the extent and nature of surveillance that security agencies are now capable of – not necesarily so that we should shut them down, but rather so that the public can consent to the limits to their uses.
I would add that, no matter how much one regrets what our intelligence community is doing, we mustn't forget that our adversaries on the international stage are doing much the same. So, to drop the guard and to abandon such surveillance systems altogether would be downright stupid. The critical question is the extent to which we might consent to the uses of information collected through mass-interception of data. When can such databases be searched, by whom, and for what purposes? For how long should unneeded data be stored?
Mr Key has released documents that show that one proposed system of cyber-defence was not taken up by Cabinet. This fails to prove that mass-interception is not undertaken at all by the GCSB. All it proves is that one option for detecting and disabling malware was not approved. Key is desperately following, and not leading, this critical debate.
Mr Snowden's revelations show us that pretty much the whole internet is open for inspection by Five-Eyes partners. That's now well established. But, let's not forget that Russia and China and probably others will at least be working on acquiring the same capabilities, if they don't already have them. (The USA and UK have the advantage of major internet traffic flows crossing their borders).
We can't unknow what we know.
The issue is now one of defining the extents and limits of the uses of these technical capabilities that we, the people, would consent to, in a free and democratic society. For a start, I guess most people would consent to systems that protect major governmental agencies' databases from cyber-attack by foreign intelligence agencies or criminals seeking, say, to establish false identities or to raid information on our economic interests. Most would consent to the detection of money-laundering or extremist activities, even if committed by NZ citizens.
Snowden's most important insight is that we, the people, should decide what we permit such systems to be employed for, at least in general terms. It's not really different, in principle, from public consent limiting the (often covert) policing of crime and the uses of firearms by police officers. The criterion should be that the level of force or surveillance that we consent to is that which is in the interests of our common safety and well-being.

08 September 2014

Why is Labour struggling?

Short answer: The Greens.
This is not to say that the Greens have been doing anything wrong. On the contrary. Going by consistent opinion polls, they stand to improve on their 2011 party-vote result (which was 11%). They play by the rules (unlike some). Their leaders are effective. And they have a clear and well-developed manifesto. Consequently, they are more assertively office-seeking in their pre-electoral rhetoric than before.
And I'm not saying that Labour has got it wrong either. Their leader is relaxing into the role better than expected (despite minor glitches). They too have a credible alternative policy programme to offer. Parker and Robertson make a great back-up for Cunliffe. But Labour's opinion-poll results have trended downwards since late 2013. Do you remember those heady days when Labour was polling in the low- to mid-30s? It looked like Labour plus the Greens could seriously challenge the government. So, what went wrong?
The problem is that people have figured out that a vote for Labour is also a vote for the Greens. Now, many Labour-voters are happy with that. They look forward to such a coalition and the balance of forces that it would bring.
But many would-be Labour-voters are disenchanted by the prospect. Add in Labour's probable need to rely upon Winston Peters in any governing arrangement, and voters are even more put off. Hence, they have either decided not to vote, or they have migrated to 'the devil you know.'
At least Cunliffe has been transparent in telling us with whom he would be prepared to form a government (Labour–Green–NZF). But it's not a recipe that works well for sufficient numbers of voters. In effect, the Greens' success as a party-seriously-seeking-office means defeat for the left as a whole. Better luck next time.

18 August 2014

Dirty Politics: A review

Nicky Hager's new book sets up Prime Minister John Key as the main target. It suggests that there is a dark side to his political management that New Zealanders ought to be aware of. But does Hager hit the target?
The main villain of the story turns out to be Cameron Slater, closely supported by his chums and clients. Slater's correspondence is ugly reading. His malicious thoughts and deeds (and his enjoyment of his own malice) are, to put it mildly, disgraceful. It damages Judith Collins's political reputation, therefore, to read her email exchanges with Slater, as reproduced in this book. It was clearly wrong for her, as a Minister, to pass on to Slater the name of a public servant whom she wrongly blamed for leaking information. (A take-home message here is never to write anything in an email that you would not want to see published one day!)
In the end, though, there is no king-hit on the Prime Minister. Hager's style is readable, rational and grounded in evidence (mostly email and chat messages). But he resorts to conjecture to implicate Mr Key. On the release of an SIS briefing note that embarrassed Phil Goff (then Labour leader), Hager writes "there seems no doubt that John Key knew..." (p. 40). This is ambiguous. "Seems" implies mere appearances, while "no doubt" implies certainty. And yet Hager presents no hard evidence that Key knew. From either a journalistic, forensic or academic viewpoint, this is sloppy. This kind of weakness gives Key the ammunition to fire back at Hager. Nonetheless, questions need to be asked about whether Slater had privileged access to official SIS information, and if so why.
Assuming that Hager's cache of supposedly hacked files is reliable evidence, then Slater and co. were up to no good. Sometimes their efforts, though nasty, are ineffectual. They tried but failed to dig up more salacious gossip about Len Brown, and even some about Rodney Hide. (Hide's subsequent denial that he was in any way blackmailed by these guys into standing down as ACT leader is believable.)
It's been asked whether Hager should have published extracts from hacked computer files. He justifies this in the preface on 'public interest' grounds. He says he has chosen not to use a lot of material that was purely personal and hence private. On balance, I agree that Hager has done the right thing to expose the attack politics that Slater and co. have engaged in. They have tried to manipulate democratic processes, not least of which was the Auckland mayoralty, but also included a National Party candidate selection process. The public do need to know that this kind of thing is going on.
When Hager published The Hollow Men (2006), its main target, Don Brash, tried to turn the story into one about "who stole the emails?" But Brash couldn't deny that the emails were genuine. And he soon resigned as party leader.
Similarly, I see no reason to doubt the veracity of the evidence in Dirty Politics. And the public-interest case in favour of publication stands up well. We should all read Dirty Politics. Then we can make sure that such gutter-level attack politics does not succeed in this country.
But the scandals that this book has caused will tend to erode people's trust in politicians even further and hence discourage voter turn-out. They may harm National at the polls, but the lost votes will either become abstentions, or go to minor parties that would support National anyway. So, despite any damage to National's brand, the effect may see them back in office anyway. National should distance themselves from Cameron Slater in future. But so far the Prime Minister has not done so. Instead, he argues that bloggers like Slater should be followed and briefed just like other media. Does this normalise dirty politics?