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.