30 November 2011

Where to now for Labour?

While the Labour party caucus agonizes over a new leader, it's worth remembering the old saying: "structure follows strategy." Too often people see a change of leader and a reorganization as a solution. But if you haven't worked out what the strategic problem was to begin with, the restructuring may be futile and misguided. (Haven't we all been 'restructured' for no apparent reason!?)

While it may be right for Phil Goff to stand down now and avoid a messy coup, the leadership change may be bungled if people aren't asking the right questions. It's not about internal factions – or it shouldn't be.

Any political party needs a coherent, positive, aspirational message. Too many of Labour's messages were negative ("stop asset sales") or mixed (expand WFF to beneficiaries, but work longer till you get Super). This suggests poor strategic thinking.

Two negative vox-pop comments that I heard about Labour around the campaign really stood out for me:

1. "Socialism is a luxury we can't afford". It's a very long time since Labour was genuinely socialist, so Labour needs to shake off that perception. (But since when was socialism "luxurious" anyway?) Furthermore, Labour has to deal with this contradiction between being seen as "soft" on people deemed "unable to make it for themselves" by voters more in the centre, and being too mean and "neo-liberal" by those on the left. Labour's mixed messages stem from this ideological and factional contradiction.

2. "I don't like National's policies, but I don't want Labour to win." Voter sentiment doesn't come much more difficult than that - from the perspective of the losers. How does Labour turn the voters' dislike of National's policies into a desire for a change to Labour? Renewed leadership is a part of that strategy, but the right strategic messages and policies must be worked out first.

My suggestion is that Labour quickly steal the adjective "aspirational". Let's (us Kiwis) aspire to something more hopeful and full of opportunity. Labour already possesses many of the policies and basic words and ideas that would launch such a strategy. But I suggest that Labour needs to do some soul-searching about this strategic issue BEFORE they choose a new leader. Otherwise it's all just introspective factional stuff, lacking in political strategic thinking.

Get the strategic message right, and then choose the most convincing face to front it.

27 November 2011

Winners and losers

Winners, in alphabetical order:

Act: John Banks won Epsom.

Greens: Since 1999, the Green party vote has gone like this: 5.2, 7, 5.3, 6.7, and has shot up to 10.6 this time. That's a big win for them. But will it fall back once Labour support begins to rebuild? In my eyes, the Greens ran the best campaign too.

Labour: Excluding their final broadcast (only because I was in it), Labour ran the second best campaign. Trouble was, the people just weren't ready for change. But they did win Wigram and Te Tai Tonga.

Mana: Won Te Tai Tokerau, and that's about all.

Maori: Not much you can say there on the winning side, except that they remain at John Key's disposal.

National: Winners in the obvious sense of being back in office. But their party vote jumped from 44.9 to 48. Perhaps 2% of that was cannibalised from Act, but 47.99% (to be more exact) is the highest party vote ever under MMP for any party.

NZ First: Winners in the obvious sense that they are back in the House with 6.8% party vote. That figure, however, is not anywhere near their best (13.3 in 1996, and 10.4 in 2002). And, to get there this time, Peters exploited an own-goal by Key and Banks over tea.

United Future: Dunne won Ohariu.

Losers, in alphabetical order:

Act: A huge loss from 3.7 to 1.1% party vote, and consequent reduction from 5 MPs to 1. They were lucky to avoid oblivion.

Greens: Hard to find a sense in which they lost. It's normal for the Greens to register higher in pre-election opinion polls than on the day, so any disappointment that they didn't get more votes needs to be kept in perspective.

Labour: Their worst result ever under MMP. It can only be up from here.

Mana: Failed to get more than one MP.

Maori: Down from 5 MPs to 3, and more than a third of their party vote lost. The split with Harawira has been very damaging.

National: If you were hoping they'd govern alone, then you may feel it as a loss. Opinion polls were over-rating National consistently, and that's a topic for discussion in itself.

NZ First: They had nothing to lose!

United Future: Narrowly avoided utter defeat this time, but how long can Dunne keep hold of his seat?

So the real winners on the night were National and the Greens. If there were the equivalent of 'man of the match', I'd award it to the Greens - though we'd have to rename it 'persons of the match'.

17 November 2011

A Comedy of Errors

Act I

The year after Don Brash lost the 2005 election for National, Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men was published. That book was based on a large quantity of documents, including emails, that had been passed on to Hager, apparently by insiders. The evidence revealed the back-room activities of politicians, including their relations with strategic communications firm Crosby/Textor.

Brash tried to divert attention from the contents of the book by accusing someone of having ‘stolen’ the emails, and a complaint was laid with the Police.

But Brash resigned as leader of the National Party very soon after the publication of The Hollow Men, probably because the evidence presented in it was accurate and damning.

And after three years of investigations, no charges were ever laid, probably because there was no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing.

Nicky Hager later revealed on Radio NZ that, under Key, the National Party had rehired Crosby/Textor. Crosby then sued Hager for defamation, but the case was unsuccessful. So Hager’s evidence has been tested against the law and found to be robust.

Act II

Don Brash and John Banks have recently staged a take-over coup of the ACT Party, presumably so that they can run it as a right-of-centre off-shoot of the National Party and help the government push through some more policies that will favour the rich.

Brash and Banks have both proven to be, in their different ways, political liabilities due to their propensity to make embarrassing comments.

The present tea-party taping scandal continues this whole tradition. The PM has tried to suppress the contents of the tapes by referring the matter to the Police, and to distract attention by making it look like reporters are the bad guys here because they allegedly use tabloid tactics and won’t back off.

Suddenly Key wants the 2011 campaign to be about ‘the issues that matter to New Zealanders’, and no longer about what a nice guy and a good leader he is.

To some extent this shutting-down approach is working for a good portion of Key’s support base, as they see the taping as an illegal invasion of his privacy. The fact that (in my opinion) the conversation was neither illegally taped nor inherently private seems not to have sunk in yet. But I would be willing to bet that no criminal charges will ever be laid for this.

Hager’s book, in 2006, revealed a lot about the behind-the-scenes real world of politics. It is highly likely that the tea-party tape also gives us a peek into that Machiavellian world. That would explain the desperate efforts to suppress it.

But Winston Peters tried the blame-the-media approach in 2008, and it didn’t work for him. It will soon wear thin for Key too. Sooner or later, he has to face the facts.

The winners in the present scandal may be NZ First and United Future, as voters unhappy with a one-party National government under a now-tarnished Key look to alternative centrist parties. The loser could of course be ACT, whose future in Parliament now looks very perilous.

Surely National must lose some votes from the events of the last few days. And they only have their leader to blame, as he helped orchestrate the tea-break. Many potential supporters will be so confused and disgusted that they may not turn out to vote at all. A majority in the House for National looks increasingly less likely.

I don’t see Labour or the Greens gaining much out of this electorally. The Greens had their own scandal to deal with – and they dealt with it swiftly and honestly. Labour wanted to debate the merits of different policies, and this week has distracted from all that. Goff may gain some political capital from this week, but I doubt that it will amount to much.

The manipulation of the Epsom voters and the cup-of-tea meeting have turned out to be bad news all round. In the end, democracy is the loser.

16 November 2011

Let’s talk about policy (A Tui billboard idea?)

I’m taking a proverbial cup of tea, amid the fuss about tape-recordings and billboard-defacings, to take stock of the different directions in which the two major parties would take us in a post-election future.

The Labour Party kicked off its election campaign by trying to focus on policy substance – as well as its historical heritage – and to avoid a personality-based face-off with Mr Key which they knew they wouldn’t win.

National seemed to be happier to let the persona of their leader carry them along, until things got derailed, but they have also released a lengthy list of policies. Many of those ideas got drowned out when they were launched, thanks to the tea-break incident. But their latest welfare policies got some air-time – even though they are only marginal changes, the moral impact of which will far outweigh any budgetary savings.

The odds are in favour of National being in a position to lead the next government, possibly on a govern-alone basis. But their policy planks do suggest that, further down the track, they want to move on with more deregulation, deeper asset sales and more private-sector involvement (e.g. in ACC’s motor-vehicle and off-the-job claims), and seeking a third term to gain a mandate for that.

Hence the importance of keeping the ACT party in Parliament for that long-term job – and hence the extraordinary contortions being made to keep the tea-party tapes suppressed. (It may be that the most incriminating evidence on those tapes comes from Banks’ mouth.) It would be safe to assume that there are wealthy individuals backing Brash and Banks to lead policy debates, as a minor partner, on the right flank in future, if they can survive the next two elections. But that may mean dumping Brash as leader.

If you haven’t already, now is a good time to read Nicky Hager’s The Hollow Men, as many of the protagonists in that scandalous story are back (Joyce, McCully, Brash, Key) and they mean business. That book gives an insight into how they work in the back room.

Labour, on the other hand, not only has some distinctive policies compared to National, but, if they are to govern in the foreseeable future (not likely this time, maybe next), it is almost certainly going to require an arrangement with the Greens – and hence substantial policy and office-sharing accommodations for green ideas. A red-green centre-left coalition offers quite different options from their opponents.

As for the Maori Party – still the major indigenous voice – depending on the numbers, there is a danger that they could become a spoiled poodle for a resurgent right, and so they may need to break off the leash altogether and show some teeth after this election. Or will they become one of those centre parties who (to mix metaphors) get into bed with whomever has the most seats – and so run the risk of death by a thousand cuts?

Beneath all the fuss about tapes and billboards, there are always interesting issues of real substance. But, if the Herald on Sunday releases a transcript of the tape this coming Sunday, the final week of the campaign will be dominated by one issue.

15 November 2011

Tea-Party-Gate Pt II

The Tea-Party conversation was not a ‘private communication.’ Anyone who is having a conversation on camera in front of the nation’s media is not having a private conversation. So, in my opinion, the taping of the conversation was not illegal.

There may nevertheless be good ethical reasons for keeping it private. But there is also merit in the opinions of those who are saying that the PM should permit the release of the tapes now, just to end the speculation.

A mood-swing in the campaign has now been precipitated by John (‘I’m relaxed about that’) Key’s loss of cool over the Tea-party tapes, his absurd allusion to ‘News of the World tactics’, and his complaint to the Police. To some, his stand may look principled, but the complaint to the Police is – let’s face it – a way of suppressing the revelation of the tape’s contents, at least until after the Election.

At the PM’s press conference on the matter, when a reporter asked if he knew that the tape had got into the hands of other media, Mr Key – visibly caught off guard and uncomfortable – said he was ‘not aware of that.’ But 3 News was later asking Dr Brash pointed questions about whether Mr Banks supports him as ACT Party leader.

Dr Brash has said in reference to the recording: ‘I’m not fussed actually’ – but we can be fairly sure that he actually is.

Aside from speculating about what’s in the recording, though, the PM’s over-the-top reactions to it have already undermined his own campaign. It’s not just the distraction of an issue that he has beaten up and that is now out of his control, but it’s also the lingering whiff of something rotten.

13 November 2011


To release, or not to release the Tea-Party tapes?

The political junkies and the bloggers say yes. But John Key seems not to be his usual ‘relaxed’ self on this occasion, and his office refused permission to publish the recording, and now he has laid a complaint with the Police.

One video recording of the meeting shows a black pouch on the café table. If that was the microphone, concealed inside that pouch, then that is circumstantial evidence that the reporters recorded the conversation deliberately. The Herald, however, claims it was left there inadvertently. But, there was a conspicuous black pouch merely inches from the elbows of both men, so, while the microphone itself was concealed, the pouch was in full view, and it could have been inspected and removed.

Even if the recording was deliberate, the PM’s comparison of this with the scandalous tactics of the UK’s News of the World tabloid is really not credible. NoW went much further than that – including secretive hacking into private phone messages of victims of crimes, and using corrupt police officers.

I'm no lawyer, but, as the PM has now laid a complaint with the Police, let’s check up on what the law says. S 216B of the Crimes Act says: ‘every one is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years who intentionally intercepts any private communication by means of an interception device.’

Now, the microphone probably fits the description of ‘an interception device.’ There is debate, however, about whether the recording was made intentionally, but there’s little I can add to that question.

The real problem for the prosecution would possibly be in establishing that the tea-party conversation was a ‘private communication.’

S 216A defines ‘Private communication’ as ‘a communication (whether in oral or written form or otherwise) made under circumstances that may reasonably be taken to indicate that any party to the communication desires it to be confined to the parties to the communication.’

So far so good…; but this definition ‘does not include such a communication occurring in circumstances in which any party ought reasonably to expect that the communication may be intercepted by some other person not having the express or implied consent of any party to do so.’

Under the circumstances, having invited the media to the party, and being surrounded by cameras, surely both Key and Banks ‘ought reasonably’ to have expected that their conversation may have been ‘intercepted by some other person’ who did not have their consent to record it. They were, after all, surrounded by reporters!

Just ushering the reporters and others away by a meter or two may not have been sufficient to signal that this had become, by the definition in the Act, ‘a private communication.’

09 November 2011

Election Day

There’s something fabulous about Election Day. Just for one day, the political order dissolves, and ‘the people’ make their way into the polling booths to take representation into their own hands, for one moment each.

The results may be perplexing, as ‘the people’ never speak with a common voice. There isn’t always a clear winner once the votes are counted, as we saw in the most recent elections in Australia and the UK. But I’m perplexed by the question: ‘Who will win the election?’

For many New Zealanders, the ‘winner’ on 26 November will be either Phil Goff or John Key – most probably the latter, it seems. This is the pseudo-presidential image of politics that has become common in our country.

‘The winners’ after the election may really be those individuals who can confidently approach the Governor-General with a claim to be named as his ‘responsible advisers’ – for the time being. That is, the winners are those elected representatives who win the privilege of deciding on his behalf.

‘The winners’, one hopes, are ‘the people’, though, as a democratic election is supposed to be an expression of their will, their values and their preferences.

But everyone knows that that last statement is nonsense, because there is no common popular will, value or preference. And the will, values and preferences of the myriad individuals out there who will vote have already been influenced and formed by messengers more powerful than most of us.

The idea of ‘opinion polls’, for instance, is sheer fantasy – but nonetheless effective at shaping the choices of the people. They would have us believe that the political opinions of people are relatively stable mental constructs, belonging to the people ‘out there’, and waiting to be elicited and counted. But, beside the fact that not all survey respondents are able to express an opinion clear enough to be recorded as such, political opinions are no more than expectations of other people’s expectations.

Holding a political opinion is like holding money. You only do so because you expect that most others expect that it will have much the same value next month as it has this month. A loss of confidence in the value of money leads to a run on the banks, rendering money worthless anyway. The same can happen to opinions – only worse, as money is a state-mandated institution, whereas opinions are free to compete.

The political opinion poll is merely one of the signals of other people’s expectations that help to shape and maintain our own expectations. Add to that the confusing televisual game of claims and counter-claims that the average (poorly informed) voter has to contend with in forming an opinion upon which to vote on Election Day, and we have a very peculiar self-replicating machine indeed.

This has all been an indirect way of describing (as I see it) the problem of why (I estimate) 20 per cent of voters on 26 November may vote for policies that are calculated not to help them to meet their needs. And who will the winners be?

It’s a strange day indeed, Election Day.

05 November 2011

MMP: Why is it not working?

I ask that question not because I think we should vote for a change in the coming referendum - but rather because, going by a couple of critical indicators, MMP is not producing outcomes that we might have hoped for.

The basic trend is that MMP election results are increasingly being dominated by the two major parties, National and Labour. Their combined shares of the party vote over the 5 MMP elections since 1996 are: 62.03, 69.24, 62.19, 80.20, 78.92%. Translated into combined percentage share of seats in the House after the election, the figures are: 67.50, 73.33, 65.83, 80.99, 82.79%.

It's reasonable to predict that the combined National-Labour party vote will exceed 80% this coming election.

Conversely, support for minor parties, all together, has been declining. And there have been significant casualties, such as the Alliance and NZ First. Those 2 parties gained 13 and 17 seats, respectively, after the 1996 election. Remember those days? It's possible that the next election will result in no seats for ACT, a party that, at its best, was getting over 7% of the party vote and 9 seats.

The Greens are the only exception to this downward trend for small parties, and that may be explained by the facts that they have clear principles, which they largely stick by, and they have kept their distance from governing parties over the years. They are likely to make gains in this election, but that could partly be due to voters migrating away from Labour, and hence it may not last.

Are NZ voters not really in tune with a proportional system? If, as opinion polls suggest, NZers give National a majority of seats in the House this election, as well as punishing one more small party (ACT), then it starts to look like there's a kind of nostalgia for the FPP system. Is it as if we are trying to make MMP perform like FPP used to, or even like SMP is supposed to?

The other relevant trend is the decline in voter turn-outs. Now, this is a widespread trend in democracies, and NZers still have a relatively high turn out. So MMP is not necessarily responsible for the decline. But MMP has certainly not encouraged higher turn-outs. It's strange to think that more voters would cast a vote under FPP, even though many of those votes made no difference whatsoever to the result, and yet MMP (with far fewer 'wasted' votes) has been accompanied by declining participation rates.

What's going wrong with MMP?

(See voter turn-out figures in the Social Report)

04 November 2011

'The bloke test': Wrong on so many levels

As if to prove my point (in the previous posting) about the superficiality of contemporary political journalism, stuff.co.nz gave Goff and Key a short quiz today called "the bloke test" in which they are asked a series of light-hearted questions about their past, their preferences and their private lives (nothing seriously compromising or searching, of course, like about religious faith or honesty with money). E.g.: "If your wife cuts your hair short and you hate it, do you tell her?" Both men unequivocally answer "no". Very wise of them too.

Readers can then go to the readers' poll and vote for which of the two they think is "NZ's best bloke." ("Neither" is an option.) John Key came out well ahead on that poll, although I couldn't really see much between the two, and could not for the life me see the point of it all. If one of the leading candidates were a woman, I guess we would never have had to see such trivialities. Or would journalists then only invent trivial questions about wardrobes, make-up etc?

None of this is helping to raise the level of political debate in this country, nor is it helping voters to consider the differences and the merits in the policies on offer at this election. Have reporters lost the plot?

03 November 2011

Look behind the mask

The trouble with TV-driven presidential-style election campaigns is that they rely too heavily on imagery and affect – rather than on analysis of parties’ substantial policies and the values and interests that election pledges are intended to give effect to. Voters are prone to being persuaded by candidates’ ‘looks’ and by how well they present on TV; and so they may unknowingly vote for real-world policies that work against their material interests and social values.

The excessive production of an image of ‘the leader’ for TV-audiences’ consumption creates very fickle reactions. For instance, once the adjective ‘arrogant’ got stuck to Helen Clark’s name in the minds of enough of the public, it signified that things were more or less over for her leadership. She who had once seemed so accessible and caring came to be seen as arrogant and controlling. Never mind the policies.

For many grumpy voters in 2008, the last straw was what they called the ‘anti-smacking’ Bill. They ‘blamed’ Helen for it, even though that was a member’s Bill introduced by Sue Bradford (of the Green Party) and, in its final form, passed with the help of the National Party. Sometimes in politics, perception really is everything!

Today, equally fickle perceptions sustain the image of John Key as relaxed, liberal and down to earth, just like one of us.

Phil Goff, by contrast, was paradoxically described by one of my students as ‘nondescript’: the description you use when you’re not describing someone! It would be a danger, after all, to attribute real qualities to the man right now, as that would upset our pre-election illusions – although he has startled observers by beginning the campaign on some strong notes.

If National gain a one-party majority in the House after the Election, then they could govern New Zealand with the ‘unbridled power’ that Muldoon used to enjoy. MMP makes it hard to reach that goal, but the opinion polls suggest that Key might be close to that – and yet he has to deny that it’s a goal of his, for fear that voters might be put off by such over-weaning ambition.

But would people then see a flip-side to Key’s present nice, liberal, aspirational image?

In any case, I don’t believe we should ever allow any political party to gain a majority of seats in the House. Given the shallowness of our parliamentary institutions, that gives too much power to the executive.

01 November 2011

Labour? National? What's the difference?

I don't really agree with Bryce Edwards' claim that "Labour and National are in virtual agreement on something like 99 per cent of the way society is run" (NZ Herald, 1 Nov.)

But then again, in partial support of his case, I read these words: "The Government is reforming New Zealand’s welfare system with an active, work-based approach, starting with the belief that most people can and will work. We are simplifying the benefit system and taking a long term investment approach to getting people off welfare and into work. This means more intensive support will be provided to people who are capable of working and who are likely to remain on benefit long term without that support."

That could have come from one of the previous Labour-led government's "social development" policy documents. The basic ideas are totally familiar. But it comes instead from the fact-sheet released today by National as part of its election manifesto.

Labour had planned for years to pull all main benefits into one "universal" benefit, but they never did (and I never found out why!). National's election pledge to reduce them to three is a big step in the same direction.

I might add that the total roll on working-age welfare benefits fell during Helen Clark's nine years in office. Given that evidence, the crucial factor for reducing welfare rolls seems to be low unemployment, and government policy follows up a distant second. National can promise all it likes about work-related expectations, sanctions etc - but, without jobs for beneficiaries to go to, their policy will be as good as dog tucker.