21 October 2013

Pre-electoral positioning has begun

To look like a credible contender for office, a political party's supporters need to see that it has potential partners with whom it could form a government after an election. On the other hand, a political party can't give too much implied support to those potential partners either, in case they bleed votes to them at the election. Worse still, some potential supporters might be put off voting for your party if they believe that you will support in office a party they don't like.
So, there are risks and opportunities in the lead-up to an election as parties give out signals to voters about their potential for forming or supporting the next government.
There's been much speculation about whether the National Party will have enough support parties around it after the next election. ACT and United Future are both at risk of losing their one-seat positions, especially given that both party leaders have lost their ministerial posts recently. ACT is in particularly dire straits thanks to the prosecution against Mr Banks. The Maori Party will be lucky to get back in with two seats after the next election, and anyway they need to distance themselves from National to survive in the long term.
Mr Key has said that he will give the electorate clearer messages this time about which parties National would be willing to work with. That presumably means no more cuppa tea meetings. Key could not have been clearer, however, in 2008 when he said that he would not work with NZ First under any circumstances. And that statement helped to turf NZ First out of parliament for a term following that election. This time around, however, Mr Key is not ruling out doing a deal with NZ First.
So, along came Winston at his party's conference last weekend to set out some very clear messages. Whereas before the last election Peters said that he was aiming to be in opposition (to keep them honest, etc), this time he's positioning himself as the king-maker. He confidently predicts winning more seats at the next election, and insists that anyone who wants to form a government will have to deal with him. And, to really throw some weight around, he insists already that there will have to be at least one major policy concession as a part of that deal: a new state-run arm of KiwiSaver that he calls KiwiFund. So, already there's a policy bottom-line; and undoubtedly Peters would throw a few 'baubles of office' into the bargain.
Mr Key has already dismissed the KiwiFund idea; and Labour's Mr Cunliffe has greeted it with coolness, but not with a closed mind. The Greens had already put forward a similar proposal.
Issuing bottom-lines at this early stage – well before the election campaign has even begun – is not very useful for future negotiations. But it does up-stage competitors and get media attention. It's a classic Peters stunt. Once the baubles of office come into view next year, all kinds of compromises are possible, after all.
So, for time being, the punter in me is picking a National–NZ First government (with a possible side-deal for United Future and/or Conservatives, if they it make through) as the most likely kind of outcome.
If, on the other hand, it looks like Winston is more likely to deal with Labour, depending on the numbers, that could weaken the influence of the Greens. It would also make government-formation rather complicated.
In the past, Peters has refused to support a (Labour-led) government that might have included the Greens, thus helping to shut the Greens out of office. With the Greens being more centrist nowadays, the ideological distance between them and NZ First may not be impossible to bridge next time around.
I'll be watching this with interest. The baubles of office have a way of focusing political minds.

20 October 2013

Mayor in an affair

It’s difficult to keep up with the outpouring of accusations, denials, confessions and startling revelations arising from the ‘Mayor in an affair’ story.
Many political commentators are concerned that this saga could signal the beginning of a gloves-off scandal-driven political culture in this country. Such gutter politics has (largely) been avoided in NZ – except when the facts get rubbed in the public's noses and there's no ignoring it any longer, or when a politician takes the moral high-ground on family issues and invites exposure for hypocrisy. Personal lives of public figures are normally out of bounds, except by invitation. But there comes a point at which they make themselves relevant and newsworthy, like it or not.
If potential scandal-mongers are watching this episode closely, though, it should warn them that personalised gutter-politics can blow up in your face as the media start to ask you about your motives. Eventually, you may find, for instance, that you are having to deny that there was any conspiracy or political intent. And, as any politician will tell you, explaining and denying are more or less the same as losing.
The right-wing blogger who published the sordidly detailed story is denying to the NZ Herald that there was any 'plot' to unseat the newly re-elected Mayor. So, let me take the blogger at his word that there was no plot. There was just an approach from an individual (Mr Wewege) who happened to belong to Mr Palino's campaign team. And, if there was no plot, then I suppose there was no strategic political purpose to the release of the story either. The right-wing blogger's motive was merely to expose Mr Brown. The bad publicity would 'shame him [Mr Brown] into resigning,' to quote the blogger himself. But no, there was no plot to get rid of Mr Brown. There was only some damning evidence that we, the voters, needed to know about. And there was certainly no plot to favour Mr Palino or any other right-wing pretender to the mayoralty.
In any case, the blogger could not have been thinking clearly enough to formulate anything as sophisticated as a plot, because he apparently didn't anticipate that the whole mess would blow back in his face.
Similarly, Mr Palino’s strenuous denial that his secretive car-park meeting with Ms Chuang was part of a plot to unseat the Mayor may be taken at face value, for the time being.
He does invite a chorus of ‘yeah, right!’ Mr Palino's and Ms Chuang's accounts of the car-park conversation differ quite markedly. But the mayoral scandal has done as much damage to Palino’s prospects in politics as it has to Brown’s. So it’s plausible to suppose that Palino (if he has an ounce of common sense) would not have encouraged the release of the details of Brown’s amorous conduct. Plausible, but there's still oodles of room for scepticism. His story about how much he knew about the affair before the publicity, seems to have changed.
As for Mr Brown, he has a few questions to answer too, but it’s best to await the report of the Council’s inquiry before we pass judgement. I’d like to know if, at the time he recommended Ms Chuang for a job at the art gallery, Mr Brown knew about her criminal conviction for actions she took as a former employee at the museum.

16 October 2013

Should Brown step down?

No he shouldn't – assuming there are no further significant facts yet to emerge.
If Mr Brown were to allow a kiss-and-tell story to lead to his resignation as mayor, then that would be to give in to the politics of the gutter. Len has admitted he's done wrong by his family. Any further concession would imply that it's open season for all jilted ex-lovers of prominent New Zealanders to let loose with their political and personal vendettas. But the country has more important matters to deal with. And Auckland has more important matters to deal with.
The story undoubtedly does Mr Brown some political damage, though. Aucklanders will perceive him differently for the time being. Many do feel his integrity and trustworthiness are in question. But all that can be restored in time, and the affair is not a sacking offence.
Winston Peters has waded into the argument, asking why the right-wing blogger didn't release the story before the election so that voters could pass judgement accordingly. Well, that's one way to increase voter turn-out! But, seriously, the answer to Mr Peters' question is simple: the woman concerned, Bevan Chuang, was herself a candidate for a post on a local board. She surely would not have allowed explicit revelations about her own sexual conduct to affect her electoral chances.
Ms Chuang was a 'Communities and Residents' (centre-right) candidate for one of 4 members on the Maungawhau Subdivision of the Albert-Eden Local Board. Three other C&R candidates were successful. But, in a close-run ballot, Ms Chuang was pipped at the post by a rival from the centre-left 'City Vision' ticket.
What I would be interested to know is whether Ms Chuang would have withheld her X-rated gossip affidavit had she been successful in the local-board election...? But I guess we'll never know the truth about that.

Update: News in the NZ Herald about Ms Chuang and her claim that she felt under pressure from others to reveal details of her liaison have overtaken (and, I argue, vindicated) the above post. It also supports my earlier point about why we should not publicly reveal such matters in the first place. The unwritten 'rule' about not reporting on the private lives of public figures should be reinforced by this whole saga.

A further update: The later report about Mr Brown acting as a referee for Ms Chuang and the announcement of an inquiry into these events by the Council look like the kinds of 'significant facts' I referred to above in this post. So, I will now have to reserve further comment.

15 October 2013

Political affairs

There exists in New Zealand an unspoken detente between journalists and politicians: reporters will not cover the 'affairs' of the rich and powerful, unless the cat gets out of the bag by other means. There's a good reason for this. Delving into the private lives of politicians would create a potentially endless chain of accusation and counter-accusation. The consequence would be a decline in trust between reporters and those reported on. If every such story were outed and led to demands for the guilty party to stand down from his or her office, then I venture to suggest that the country would soon be in danger of becoming almost leaderless.
A mature political community will accept that affairs do happen, especially around the corridors of power. They can of course cause hurt to the persons affected, but, so long as nothing unlawful (like coercion) is involved, a blind eye should be turned by the media. Such matters are private, and they should be treated as such. The affected parties can deal with the consequences as best they can, without the glare of public attention. It would be a sad day when Bill-and-Monica-style gossip comes to dominate the political headlines.
Bloggers, of course, do not always feel constrained by professional journalistic ethics, though the threat of defamation might make them think twice about unsubstantiated allegations. Unfortunately, the recent release of a kiss-and-tell story crosses that line in spectacular style. It recounts far more intimate detail than necessary to make its point, and involves a prominent mayor.
The real political story here is not the rather dull and prurient one about a middle-aged man who got the hots for a younger woman. Instead it's about what motivated the right-wing blogger and the woman involved 'to tell on' the left-wing politician. Because one can ask now 'why stop there?' We all know that there is a raft of such stories floating around the Beehive, the courts, the law firms, etc etc. So, why not lift the lid on the private sexual affairs of the whole darned establishment?
I do not subscribe to the theory that a public figure who has an affair (and is found out) is thus disqualified from public office. An affair does not represent, in my opinion, a gross breach of the public's trust. Nor does it signify that the person concerned is no longer competent to fulfill their duties. An affair may well breach a private trust, but it does not necessarily impinge upon the public interest.
In short, let's please grow up.

06 October 2013

I voted...!

...and apparently that gives me the right to complain. And so I will complain. But I'd like to complain about the pundits who are argue that low voter turn-outs signify that the democratic system is somehow 'broken' or having a 'crisis.'
The local-body polling period is not even over, but there are predictions around that this election will see a new low in turn-outs. Maybe it will be. Wait and see. But we hear the usual excuses for not voting: there are too many candidates, no-one's inspiring enough for me, over-paid bureaucrats run everything anyway, none of them listens to me, the forms are too complicated, I'm just too lazy and stupid to work it out!
I note also that it's the left-wing commentators who complain about low turn-outs. The reason for this is obvious. Right-wingers like low turn-outs, because that works in favour of them. Conservative and elderly people are those most likely to vote. It also means that left-wing candidates have to become more centrist, or even conservative, in order to stay in the game.
And from those left-wing pundits who argue that the system must be 'broken' or in a 'crisis' I hear no hint of a practical solution to the problem - or perhaps they're hiding some neo-Stalinist ideology up their sleeves. So, my challenge to them is to propose solutions. What reforms must be done to the democratic system in order to improve participation by voters?

04 October 2013

Do we stick to our principles?

Anders Breivik has been admitted to the University of Oslo to study political science – naturally without being admitted to the campus itself. The university's rector explains this decision here.
Suppose Breivik, or someone guilty of a similar atrocity, applied to study politics at Massey University, due to its capabilities in distance education, allowing him to study from his cell, in accordance with the law of his nation.
Would New Zealanders take the same moral position that the University of Oslo has taken?

02 October 2013

Kiwis in Australia get a raw deal

See my article on The Conversation.

See further coverage in NZ Herald.

01 October 2013

The TPPA: Is it democracy?

A lobby group has launched a campaign that calls on the government to release the draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, an agreement on many aspects of trade that is under negotiation between 12 countries, including New Zealand and the USA. This campaign argues that drafting such a significant multi-lateral treaty in secret is undemocratic and that 'it's our right to know' what's in the draft before it gets signed by the government.
So, before we let the blood rush to our heads over this, let's look at the process involved here.
International treaties are still considered to be acts of the executive performed out there in the supposedly anarchic space of the ungoverned relations between sovereigns. With the increasing complexity of real-world international law and with credible organizations such as the UN and WTO, this old-world view of international law is somewhat out-dated.
All the same, the NZ Cabinet Manual (a document that has no statutory legal status) says that 'the power to take treaty action rests with the Executive.' What does this mean in practice?
First, it means that Cabinet must agree to initiate negotiations. That step has obviously been undertaken as regards the TPPA. But, any significant treaty such as the TPPA must 'after Cabinet's approval, be presented to the House for examination, before the Executive takes binding treaty action.'
So, before the Prime Minister and/or Minister of Foreign Affairs sign off our binding agreement to such a treaty, the treaty has to be 'presented' to Parliament for 'examination.' And at this point Parliament's standing orders kick in as the governing rules. The treaty is to be presented along with a 'national interest analysis' of the treaty, which of course will be written by the government's own officials and will naturally spell out why, on balance, we need to sign up to the treaty. Parliament's 'examination' of the treaty requires select committee 'consideration,' which may include public submissions. The select committee must report to the House on the treaty. In drafting its report, the select committee 'considers whether the treaty ought to be drawn to the attention of the House.'
The Cabinet Manual advises that 'the House itself may sometimes wish to give further consideration to the proposed treaty action; for example, by a debate in the House.'
This whole process can be affected by decisions such as how much time is to be allowed for select committee consideration, whether public submissions are to be invited, and whether there is to be a debate in the House. All of this will get political, of course, and one can expect the Greens especially to get stuck in. Labour wants to see early public disclosure and consultation on the TPPA and to ensure it works in NZ's best interests, but isn't opposed to the idea altogether.
The public may get little time to digest what's in the TPPA, and to debate the matter through the media, before it's signed. While in the negotiation stages, the treaty is kept strictly under wraps.
The inclusion of parliamentary consideration of such treaties into the standing orders is only a concession to 'democracy,' and the ultimate decision to sign the treaty is Cabinet's. The government does not present a Bill to the House in order to get the authority to sign the treaty. A vote on the matter in parliament is not decisive. If parliament had that power, the government would use its majority to have it passed anyway. Either way, the ultimate judge is 'we the people' who (if we care enough) can factor the government's ratification of international treaties into our approval or disapproval of their performance. But, by election time, the TPPA may have been signed and sealed. And, depending on what it contains, it may be difficult to withdraw from it, even if New Zealanders don't like it.