27 April 2011

Labour's turn for a hiding

Phil Goff must be glad that the ACT party has taken attention away from Labour's pitiful performance for the time being. His predicament resembles that of Bill English when the latter was leader of the Opposition: low in the polls, failing to find traction, etc. The fact that no-one has rolled Goff so far suggests to me that Labour's front bench have basically decided that none of them is a match for John Key this election, and they're going to let Phil be the fall-guy. The take-home message is that Labour's front-runners are giving up on this Election. One expects a coup early next year.

Labour's basic problem, though, is not about 'who leads' but about the very relevance of centre-left social-democratic politics - which appears to be in decline in many western democracies. The danger is that populist hard-right parties with strongly nationalistic ideals step in to win the hearts and minds of working-class voters whose real material interests have not been adequately upheld by the parties of the left. (Look at Finland's recent election!) NZ Labour, like other similar parties, have tended to abandon social-democratic policies for fear of scaring 'the markets', and they have increasingly taken the 'safe' conservative options.

Furthermore, trade unions, Labour's traditional power-base, have been decimated (in terms of membership) due to the changes in employment laws; and both Labour and the union movement have sought a (very fragile) refuge in identity politics. The latter, in my experience, generally leads to an introverted concern for 'who' gets represented, and on which committees, but stifles robust policy debate and analysis.

Digging themselves out of this leadership and ideological hole is going to take Labour quite some time. But they have a responsibility to lower-income New Zealanders to come up with a credible alternative - before a raving nationalist, anti-immigrant party rushes in to fill the gap. (Can you think of a contender?)

Labour's 'Stop the asset sales' campaign may be aimed at a genuine weak-point in National's armour, but it hasn't exactly hit home so far. Labour would need to do more than just attack National. And they have yet to offer the anxious low-to-middle income voters an alternative that might promise greater security and opportunity for the future. The Greens may well be looking increasingly attractive to disillusioned lefties...

26 April 2011

New Right dinosaurs fight for survival

There are many ironies in what we are seeing with the (now very old) 'new right' scrabbling desperately to regain a foothold in the electorate. The likes of Brash, Banks, Douglas, Gibbs etc had their political hey-day in the 1980s and early 90s. Because their laissez-faire policies were thrust upon us with little effective democratic mandate and no real consultation, we voted to overhaul the whole electoral system in 1993 and brought in MMP. Without MMP there'd be no ACT party in Parliament at all. But one good thing about MMP is that its results give us a clue as to how much support those good old 19th century laissez-faire policies actually have among the voting public: very very little.

Brash claims that his leadership of ACT could revive the party's support, as well as bring it back to its original Rogernomics/Ruthanasia principles. Sure, Hide has lost support and has taken the party down an unfortunately populist route, but the weird wisdom behind Hide's direction was that populism half-succeeded where neo-liberal purism would have failed miserably. Brash's ultra-dry style may be backed by a few wealthy potential donors, but not many voters are going to buy it. John Key seems at least to have got that point.

But here's the other irony: neo-liberal politics has always been contemptuous of democratic politics. Despite the ideas of 'freedom of choice' etc that the new right espouse, history shows us that the best way to get such ideas implemented in the real world is to take advantage of political or economic crises and to ram them through without any democratic mandate at all. If you can get a dictator to do it for you (e.g. General Pinochet in Chile, or Yeltsin in Russia), then so much the better. Milton Friedman (intellectual master of the new right) used to be a big fan of Hong Kong in the 1980s, when it was a British colonial outpost ruled by an unelected executive. (And look who's running HK now!)

The laughable thing is that this septagenarian new right are struggling for relevance with a portion of voters that may amount to little more than 3% - or even less. Brash no doubt aims to lift the party over the 5% threshold. That would be an incredible feat if he can do it (and that's a big 'if'). But it does shows you how marginal their relevance actually is.

ACT and its supporters would probably have a better chance of getting their ideas implemented if they could encourage the army to stage a coup... But don't shout about it - they have wealthy backers!

15 April 2011

Insults and emergencies

Should a person who has been hired by a state-sector agency and who has been publicly criticised for his performance of his duties be free to sue for defamation independently of his employer? This is one question arising from the comments about one of ACC's clinical staff, as reported.
I'm not supplying a link to the blog in which a woman makes comments about the clinician, for obvious reasons. But, if you read it, I think you'd agree that the doctor has cause to feel offended. (The blog-posting had not been removed when I looked this morning). I'll leave it to lawyers (and possibly even the courts) to decide whether the blog-post constitutes defamation. But the comments are so personally targetted at the clinician concerned that he could well seek some kind of remedy. A blog is a public document, after all.
My next question, though, would be whether the courts are the right place for taking action, in this instance. The author of this controversial blog-post is an ACC sexual abuse claimant, and claimants with such sensitive claims have had reason to be offended by ACC's changes in policies for their assessment in the recent past.
As a physician, the good doctor has to ask himself whether he is following the precept 'above all do no harm' by serving legal papers on the woman. Surely there must be a better way to resolve the matter, perhaps by mediation. Both parties could be more reasonable.

My second issue today is about the emergency powers conferred by Parliament to the executive under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act. The previous Act (passed in a single day after the September quake) was, in my opinion, justifiably criticised by lawyers and by the Law Society which said that certain provisions were "potentially at odds with maintenance of the principles of the rule of law."
The new Act is an improvement on the first one, but it still doesn't completely remove the causes for concern that were raised earlier.
On the positive side, the new Act allows for the publication of plans and strategies, for greater oversight of the Minister's decisions, and for some limited community consultation. It is clear that consultation (let alone litigation) can't be allowed to go on for too long and to hold up the recovery and rebuilding process. But I am not yet convinced that the Minister has justified the 'necessity' of the powers granted to him as proportionate to the needs of the post-disaster situation. There is still wiggle room for the Minister to go too far in suspending laws, while remaining unaccountable before any court for his decisions.
Ultimately, the Minister and the government will be accountable for their actions on election-day, so there's an incentive to get the recovery process working well and designing a new Christchurch that meets the people's needs. But, in the meantime, for all we know they could be planning for a huge and ugly inner-city shopping mall to meet those needs. And they could also 'ride rough-shod' (to use the PM's subtle expression) over the local needs of those Labour-voting residents in the eastern suburbs.