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?

17 August 2014

Do large donations to parties and election campaigns influence election results?

Further to my comments in Sunday Star-Times:
Since May 2012, Colin Craig has contributed at least $2,594,500 to the Conservative Party, plus $675,000 from Laurence and Katrina Day of Hamilton. Kim Dotcom pumped $3,250,000 into the Internet Party in May this year. At least the Electoral Act makes these donations transparent, and voters can judge for themselves. But what do we know about the link between finances and election results? Most of the research on this question comes from the US, where money and politics are intimately intertwined. But they have completely different electoral and governmental systems from ours, so comparisons are not easy. In any case, the research shows (unsurprisingly) that it's complicated.

Campaign spending may positively affect vote share sometimes, but it can also have a negative effect if voters disapprove of the sources or suspect favour-trading (think Bretherens and National, 2005), and it may make no difference if there was little contest anyway.

The lesson for NZ may be that campaign finance matters more to your vote share if you are not yet in parliament, or if you are in opposition. But there is no straight line linking finance with results. Craig's investment could turn out to be a colossal waste (as it was in 2011). Perhaps he’d achieve more if that money were donated to charities.

So, the sky is not the limit, but there must be a floor, or a war-chest sum below which it is impossible to have any electoral impact at all, or no chance of winning even one seat. And apparently that 'floor' is quite a high one nowadays. Long gone are the days of independents winning electorates, whereas that was quite common up until the 1930s.

As for the link between donations and policies, it can be hard to tell which came first, the policy or the donation. Think of the couple who donated to the Conservatives because they want binding referenda. Did Craig push that policy because of the donation, or did the donor come forward because of the policy? Or were they in cahoots all along? And will we ever know the truth?

Some research shows that (in the US) donations do influence voting patterns of congressmen. But, in NZ, individual legislators can't be influenced so easily, as they almost always obey the party whip. So, it's not clear how much influence donors in NZ have on parties' policies or support for legislation. Outright bribery of an MP regarding a Bill is of course a crime.

We do have strict limits on spending on election advertising by parties and by local electorate candidates. This is alongside state funding for parties’ electoral campaign broadcasts. But should we also put a cap on the amounts of money that any private donor can donate or on the total amounts that parties can collect from donors in an electoral cycle?

A strict cap on private donations may increase the numbers of donors, as parties would have to look further afield. This may be a good thing. Oddly enough, it could actually turn out to be in the interests of the fat-cat funded parties (such as ACT) if there were caps on private donations, as this would reduce voter suspicion of policy-influence by wealthy individuals.

At least it's now transparent who is donating large sums to whom. If all donors (great and small) had to be named, then a huge list of names would come out into the public arena, and many would be deterred from donating as a result (which would be a pity, I think). Also, should we then demand to know who is donating in-kind? e.g. on the phone banks, door knocking, items for auction, etc. Where does it end?

Allowing for private gifts (of time and money) to political parties is beneficial, as it connects supporters with party leaders. Anonymity for small donors helps to keep them donating. We have presently a mixed public-private system. But do we need to cap big private donations and move political party finance more towards state funding? It’s worth a debate.
Here's another informative article.

15 August 2014

Actually, even if you don't vote, you can still complain

That august journal the NZ Herald (aka 'Granny') has repeated the now widespread cliche that you should vote in order to 'earn the right to complain.' That is, 'if you don't vote, you have no grounds to complain.'
This is complete nonsense. And it's time we stopped saying it. In a country that promotes freedom of speech, anyone, regardless of their eligibility to vote, let alone whether they did or did not vote, has the right to speak out and complain about politicians, politics or particular policies.
In fact, choosing to abstain from voting may in itself be a form of complaint about politics for some people. They have the right.

07 August 2014

Do we need a Royal Commission on the public service?

The Labour Party has announced that it would establish a Royal Commission to inquire into the public service. This arises from concerns about threats to the political neutrality of public servants. It would look at whether pressures from ministers have interfered with public servants' willingness to give 'free and frank advice' and whether there are growing risks of corruption.
The present Minister of State Services, Jonathan Coleman, has written this proposal off, however, claiming that it would be 'wasteful' and that it was unnecessary as both National and Labour have recently supported amendments to the law on the state sector and public finance. These amendments were significant, but they do not really address the concerns that Labour's spokesperson, Maryan Street, was raising. There are still genuine concerns surrounding the behaviour of ministers towards public servants and the extent to which this may compromise the political neutrality of the public service and its willingness to offer free and frank advice, as opposed to simply telling ministers what they want to hear.
There's a fine balancing act for public servants. They tend to be better informed than the average citizen about political life, and of course they have their personal political opinions. And yet they are required to act as professionals in a way that is politically neutral. This means that they should serve the government of the day loyally, regardless of their personal views. At the same time, they should be able to offer advice to ministers that evaluates all options. Advice that conflicts with what the government may prefer should not be withheld out of fear of courting displeasure. Public confidence in public services and in policy development relies on our being able to trust that ministers get to hear the whole story (and not just carefully edited highlights) from their advisers. There have been some scandals recently emerging out of Wellington that raise strong suspicions that 'free and frank advice' is no longer welcome in the Beehive.
As for corruption, New Zealand is ranked by Transparency International as the least corrupt country on earth. But no-one seems to know how we got to that position, and it certainly gives us no cause for complacency. Maintaining a relatively clean record in the public services is vital, and we could do with a close examination of what works and what doesn't.
So, yes, a full commission of inquiry into these questions would be great idea.

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.