Archive for ‘September, 2014’
Although we in NZ have been preoccupied with our own national election, Fiji had one a few days earlier that arguably is far more important when it comes to that country’s long-term prospects. Much has been written about this foundational election and the transition from dictatorship to democracy, but in this 36th Parallel analysis I consider the possibility that Fiji may see Singapore as a developmental model worth emulating.
It is not as crazy an idea as you might think at first glance.
The matters I discussed in the previous post to do with reality-adjacent campaigning are about targeting voters with messages they can grok about issues they care about. But empiricism is not much good for deciding a party’s ideological values or for developing policy. Parties made up of committed ideologues remain indispensable for that reason.
As is often pointed out to me, I am not such a person. I have never been a member of a party, nor involved in a campaign, and I have little desire to do either. For some people this means I obviously don’t know what I’m talking about; fair enough. As an analyst, I prefer the outsider’s perspective. I don’t feel any pressure to be loyal to bad ideas or habits, and I try to answer only to the evidence. Ironically, though, there isn’t much hard evidence for the arguments I’m about to make about the medium-term future of the NZ left. Nobody has any. It’s value-judgements all the way down. So my reckons are as good as anyone else’s, right?
For mine, the major shift from the 2014 election — apart from the unprecedented dominance of the National party — is away from Small Vehicle politics and towards Big Vehicle politics. Only National and NZ First gained modestly. All other parties all failed to meet the threshold or lost support. The destruction of Internet MANA and the failure of a much-improved Conservative party demonstrates that there is no tolerance for insurgency, and the cuts to Labour and the Greens indicates that any confusion or hinted shenanigans will be brutally punished. National can govern alone; it is including ACT, United Future and the Māori Party as a courtesy, and to provide cover. This is Key’s money term. It should be a period of grand political themes and broad gestures, and the left needs to attune itself to this reality: Labour needs to take the responsibility of being a mass movement with broad appeal and capability; a Big Vehicle. The Greens will hopefully get bigger, but I think they will remain a Small Vehicle, appealing to relatively narrow interests, however important they are.
Assuming it doesn’t annihilate itself utterly in the coming weeks, Labour will be the core of any future left-wing government, but the strategies that served it poorly as a substantial party of opposition will be utterly untenable in its diminished state. Throughout most of the past six years, Labour has been the party opposed to National. They haven’t been a party that clearly stands for anything, that projects the sort of self-belief that National, the Greens, and even NZ First does.
Labour therefore needs to re-orient its conduct and messaging to its core values, and those are fundamentally about secure and prosperous jobs for the majority of working people, and those who rely on the state as the provider of last resort. But I am emphatically not calling for a retreat to doctrinaire materialism at the expense of superstructural considerations. The demographic groups that kept Labour alive this election were women (6.6 points higher than men), Māori, and Pasifika, and the party would be insane not to recognise the debt that they owe these voters. Of 11 MPs in whose electorates Labour won the party vote, only one — David Clark — is Pākehā, and in his electorate of Dunedin North Labour got 24 votes more than National. Five (Williams, Mahuta, Sepuloni, Wall, and Whaitiri) are women. The return of Te Tai Hauāuru, Tāmaki Makaurau and especially Te Tai Tokerau to Labour underscores the opportunity that exists to reconnect with Māori.
There will be enormous pressure to begin taking these voters for granted again, and it must be vigorously resisted. As for talk of reaching out to “the base” — a party’s “base” is who votes for it when it is at its lowest. Labour’s base as demonstrated by the 2014 election is comprised largely of working-class women, Māori, and Pasifika. So policy proposals that impact those groups more directly — parental leave, free healthcare, ECE, support for family violence services, social welfare — should not be neglected. By and large, though, these voters will also be motivated by many of the same concerns that speak to anyone else, particularly as the National government’s policies begin to bite. But the party’s appeal must expand well beyond this base into the centre ground. It need not be zero-sum. Labour cannot afford to be caricatured as a party that only cares about those groups, it must be a party that a broad range of people feels like it could vote for — like the party understands their needs, and would act in their interests. The key is framing messages and policies in ways that speaking to the base without alienating the broader public, and to the broader public without excluding the members of these base demographics groups, using separate channels and emphasis where necessary. The key term here is “emphasis”.
The party also has to be smarter and more pragmatic than it has been, especially in social policy. At a minimum, this means an end to opposing Whānau Ora on principle. The new MP for Hauāuru, Adrian Rurawhe, speaking to Radio New Zealand’s Te Ahi Kā on Sunday, has a strong line on this: to not attack the philosophy, to not attack the model, but to attack the implementation of individual schemes. There’s a distinction between cartelised privatisation of service delivery, and self-determination, and a party of Māori aspirations should work, even in opposition, to strengthen and entrench the latter so it can succeed. National has spent six years making policies targeted at Māori, run by Māori and under Māori delivery models politically and culturally acceptable, and has made enormous progress on Treaty claims. Labour must capitalise on these gains. They also provide an opportunity to reach out to the Māori Party, should they survive another term in government and remain viable.
The same imperative also means collaborating with the government on distasteful topics like RMA reform, regional and rural development, and charter schools. The battle over whether these will happen is comprehensively lost; the questions now are how badly are they going to be done, and how much political capital will be wasted in trying to unshit the bed later. Better for Labour to work collaboratively with the government to limit the damage and make the best possible use of the rare opportunity to reform entrenched systems. Let the Greens fight them. Don’t worry! There will be plenty else to oppose.
The Greens are here to stay, and Labour should not be reluctant to bleed some of its liberal-activist support to them, to make up bigger gains elsewhere. This will infuriate many in the activist community, and most everyone on Twitter, but my sense is nearly all of those folks vote Green anyway, and they will be in safe hands. Labour hasn’t been a radical or activist party in recent memory, except for 1984-1990, and we know how that turned out.
There is an opportunity to coordinate and make use of the temperamental differences between the parties, with the Greens taking a more vigorously liberal and activist role against Labour’s moderate incrementalism. The strategy that has been proposed intermittently for ages that Labour should attack the Greens directly is insane — the two parties, while allied, do not and should not substantially share a constituency. Labour, like National, is is a mass movement of the people, and should become more so; the Greens are a transitional insurgent movement seeking to influence the existing mass movements, and they seem intent on continuing in that role.
Of all the Small Vehicles, the Greens are best equipped to thrive in a Big Vehicle-dominant context. New Zealand First will struggle. While Labour should collaborate with the Greens, Labour should contend with NZ First, and aim either to gut it of its voter base or, more plausibly, to drive it towards National where the inevitable contradictions and ideological enmities will probably cause harm to both parties. ACT and United Future are wholly-owned by John Key and are effectively irrelevant.
The worst case for Labour, apart from continuing in the blissful ignorance that nothing is really wrong, would be a retreat into sullen populism, trying to out-Winston Winston or out-Key Key, or chucking the vulnerable passengers overboard so that the ship might float a little higher in the water for those who remain. The party has to have its own identity and its own motive force, and it has rebuild its own constituency. It can be done. I hope they can do it, because we haven’t had an effective Labour party for a long time now, and we really need one.
John Key and David Cunliffe both spent much of the election campaign talking about the dreaded “things that New Zealanders really care about”. But Key, under direct attack, was much more disciplined about sticking to those things. The metacampaign, Dirty Politics, and the Dotcom Bomb were worth nothing more than haughty dismissal. At the time this seemed arrogant and ill-advised — how could he just shrug off such scandal? But he did. The National party ran an orthodox, modern campaign. They stuck to their guns amid all the madness, and the result was triumphant.
The poster child for this campaign was candidate Chris Bishop, who ran an old-fashioned shoe-leather campaign in the Labour stronghold of Hutt South and pushed the party’s strategic genius Trevor Mallard to within a few hundred votes of losing the seat he has held for 20 years. No stunts, no social media hype, no concern for the wittering about his being a former tobacco lobbyist, he just talked to the people and listened to the answers that came back.
But how did they know?
John Key could afford to dismiss the metapolitics because he had plenty of good data telling him that people didn’t care about it, and to the extent that they did care about it, it favoured him. The single most evident difference between the campaigns is that When John Key said “the things New Zealanders really care about” he actually knew that these were the things that New Zealanders actually care about. The National party ran a reality-based campaign, not a hype-based, or a hope-based, or a faith-based campaign. In this they mirrored the most famous hope-based campaign of all time — Barack Obama’s — where the breezy, idealistic messaging was built on a rock-solid data foundation.
Key seems to have been the only party leader who was really secure in this knowledge. The Greens and Labour did seem to want to stick to their guns, but their data was evidently not as good, and they bought at least some of the hype that Dirty Politics and the Dotcom Bomb would bring Key low. So did I. But nothing much is riding on my out-of touch delusions. But opposition has a responsibility to be, if not reality-based, then at the very least reality-adjacent.
Play, or get off the field
But data is not a Ring of Power that puts its users in thrall to the Dark Lord. And, unlike the One Ring, it can’t be thrown into a volcano and the world saved from its pernicious influence. Evidence and strategy are here to stay. Use them, or you’re going to get used. The techniques available to David Farrar and the National party are not magic. They are available to anyone. Whether Labour has poor data or whether they use it poorly I do not know. It looks similar from the outside, and I have heard both from people who ought to know. But it doesn’t really matter. Data is only as good as what you do with it. Whatever they’re doing with it isn’t good enough.
The best example from this campaign isn’t Labour, however — it’s Kim Dotcom. He said on election night that it was only in the past two weeks that he realised how tainted his brand was. He threw $4.5 million at the Internet MANA campaign and it polled less than the Māori Party, who had the same number of incumbent candidates and a tiny fraction of the money and expertise. Had he thought to spend $30,000 on market research* asking questions like those asked by Curia about what New Zealanders think of Kim Dotcom, he could have saved himself the rest of the money, and saved Hone Harawira his seat, Laila Harré her political credibility, and the wider left a severe beating.
That is effective use of data: not asking questions to tell you what you want to hear, but to tell you what you need to know. This electoral bloodletting is an opportunity for the NZ political left to become reality-adjacent, and we can only hope they take it. Because if they don’t, reality is just going to keep winning.
* In response to this figure, UMR pollster Stephen Mills tweeted “$1000 would have been enough”.
A while back I wrote a post arguing that the NZ Left was in serious disarray. Various Left pontificators fulminated from the depths of their revolutionary armchairs against my views, denouncing me for being defeatist. I responded as politely as I could.
Last night conservative, ring wing parties won nearly 64 percent of the popular vote. Left wing parties–such as they are given Labour’s pro-capitalist bent, the Green’s turn to the middle and Internet/Mana’s schizophrenic leanings–mustered 36 percent of the vote. The message is clear: New Zealand is a right-leaning country. Nearly 30 years of pro-market policy (an entire generation’s worth) has resulted in a country that no longer considers egalitarian and redistributive principles as hallmarks of the national identity. Instead, the turn to self-interest has seeped deeply into the social fabric.
That is the context in which the NZ Left must operate. That is the context that I was writing about in my earlier postings. And that is the context that we will have for the foreseeable future unless the Left learns to shift the terms of the political debate off of tax cuts, deficits, public spending, workforce flexibility and other pro-market arguments. So far it has not done so and in fact has often tried to operate within the context and political debate as given. Perhaps last night’s drubbing will make the Left realise that this is a mistake.
After all, those who define the terms of the debate are those who win.
In order for the Left to re-define the terms of political debate in NZ there has to be a plausible counter-argument that can compete with the language of austerity, limited government, non-interference and self-interested maximising of opportunities. This election campaign demonstrated that concerns about civil liberties, privacy, child poverty, environmental degradation, corporate welfare, predatory trade and other progressive cornerstones took a back seat to economic stability as defined by market ideologues.
Given that fact, the process of re-definition has to start there: basic definition of economic stability. One way to do so if to move off of the usual market analytics favoured by bankers and corporates and onto the social costs of an increasingly unequal division of labour. Because the price for market stability is seen in a host of variables that are not amenable to standard market analysis, yet which are as real as the glue sniffing starved kid living rough and begging for change on the increasingly mean streets of Godzone.
For those who remain undecided about where their voting preferences lie, allow me to offer this brief guide.
If you are an urban hipster, video game geek or under 20 who likes to yell “F*** you” a lot, then the Internet Party is your best option.
If you are a disgruntled old lefty or maori activist who waxes nostalgic for the glory days of relevancy, or a bogan, vote Mana.
If you are smug materialist wanker or wanna-be wanker who thinks the poor deserve their fate, money equates to personal value and anything goes in the pursuit of money or power, then vote National.
If you are an anxious sell-out who wishes that you were better than that, or a brown person wanting to climb the social ladder a few rungs, then vote Labour.
If you are a non-anxious sell-out who thinks the word sustainable is cool to use at cocktail parties, vote Green.
If you are religious, like the death penalty and are into smacking kids, vote Conservative.
If you are a closet freak who acts straight-laced in public but likes to get kinky in private, vote United Future.
If you are part of the maori aristocracy or a maori who likes to suck up to the Man, vote Maori party.
If you are pakeha geezer, xenophobe or confused economic nationalist, vote Winston First.
If you are a wide eyed adolescent pseudo-intellectual who masturbates while reading Ann Rand and wonder why you cannot get a date, vote ACT.
If you think that 1080 is part of 5 Eyes, vote Ban 1080.
If you are loser who likes to follow another loser, NZ Independent Coalition is your choice.
If you have no clue as to what you want in life, Focus New Zealand can help.
If you like Winston First policies but cannot stand Winnie, vote Democrats for Social Credit.
If you think that it is hilarious that taxpayers fund the campaign of a piss-take satirical group, then vote Civilian Party.
If you wish people would just chill out, then Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party is for you.
If you are a recent immigrant, you should re-think that decision. Vote Blank.
And if all else fails…vote for Penny Bright!
*This guide is for general reference purposes and should not be considered an endorsement or recommendation of anything.
Glenn Greenwald’s arrival in NZ has reignited controversy over who, exactly, the GCSB spies on, how it does so, and for whom it does so. Tonight he will outline what he has gleaned from the Snowden leaks, and I have no doubts that what is revealed will be of serious consequence. The impact will be twofold.
So far, most attention has focused on the domestic side of the equation, in the form of claims that the GCSB, in concert with its 5 Eyes partners, conducts mass surveillance of New Zealand citizens and residents. The way it does so is to tap into the broadband infrastructure in order to extract so-called “metadata,” that is, the key identifiers of cyber messages such as time, sender, internet addresses and geographic locations of those communicating, etc. This information is stored and later subject to data mining from technologies like X Keyscore, which searches for keywords and phrases that can justify opening the metadata in order to reveal the contents of the messages identified by the data-mining technologies.
In simple terms, it is like going to people’s postboxes and recording all of the identifying features of their mail without opening the mail itself unless key identifiers allow the government to do so.
The government maintains that a) it does not collect metadata on New Zealanders and NZ permanent residents; and b) that collecting metadata is not equivalent to mass surveillance in any event since the contents of the messages from which metadata is extracted are not accessed unless there are reasons of national security to do so, and this occurs only in a handful of instances.
The reality is that because of a gentleman’s agreement between the 5 Eyes partners, metadata of the citizens of one partner state is accessed and collected by one or more of the other partners and only sent to the originating state if data-mining indicates that there is reason to open the contents of specific metadata “packages” concerning citizens or residents of that state. In this way the originating state government can claim that it is not engaged in mass surveillance of its own citizens or residents.
That may be parsing the meaning of “mass surveillance” beyond useful construction, but it does allow the government to deny that it conducts such mass surveillance on technical grounds–i.e., metadata is not the same as a private communication because it has no content.
The problem with such specious reasoning is that it violates two foundational tenets of liberal democracy: the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence. If it is considered an untoward invasion of privacy for the government or others to systematically rifle through and record the identifying features of correspondence in people’s mail boxes, then it is equally a violation of citizen’s rights to privacy for the government to electronically collect and store their cyber metadata.
Moreover, the mass collection and sharing of metadata by 5 Eyes intelligence agencies violates the presumption of innocence that citizens of democracies are supposedly entitled to. That is because the metadata is collected without cause. The government does not have a specific reason, suspicion or motive for collecting metadata, it just does so because it can under the aegis of “national security.” It then subjects this metadata to data-mining in order to find cause to conduct more intrusive searches of the contents. It is, in effect, trawling through everyone’s cyber communications in order identify and presumably counter the nefarious behaviour or plans of some individuals, groups or agencies.
This strikes at the heart of democracy. Yet the remedy is fairly simple. Under legal challenge the government can be forced to show cause for the collection of metadata of its citizens and residents. If it cannot, then the courts can deem such collection to be illegal in all but the most exceptional circumstances. With that judgement–and I very much doubt that any High Court would find it reasonable or permissible to engage in mass metadata collection without cause–intelligence agencies are put on notice and henceforth proceed with metadata collection and sharing at their peril.
In contrast to the attention directed at the issue of mass surveillance, there is a far more damaging side to Greenwald’s revelations. That is the issue of the GCSB and 5 Eyes espionage on other countries and international agencies such as the UN or non-governmental organisations as well as foreign corporations, financial institutions, regulatory bodies and the like. Such external espionage is part of traditional inter-state intelligence gathering, which includes economic, military and political-diplomatic information about targeted entities.
Judging from what has already been revealed by the Snowden leaks with regard to the external espionage activities of the other 5 Eyes partners, it is very likely that Greenwald will reveal that NZ, through the GCSB in concert with 5 Eyes, spies on friendly or allied states as well as hostile state and non-state actors such as North Korea and al-Qaeda. This may include trade or diplomatic partners. It could well include economic or commercial espionage.
The impact of such revelations will outweigh the repercussions of the domestic surveillance aspects of the Snowden leaks. With the nature and extent of NZ’s espionage made public, its reputation as an independent and autonomous “honest broker” in international affairs will be shattered. Its pursuit of a UN Security Council seat could well go up in smoke. But above all, the response of the states that have been and are targeted by the GCSB will be negative and perhaps injurious to NZ’s national interests. The response can come in a variety of ways, and can be very damaging. It can be economic, diplomatic or military in nature. It could involve targeting of Kiwis living in in the states being spied on, or it could involve bans or boycotts of NZ exports. The range of retaliatory measures is broad.
Unlike the other 5 Eyes partners, NZ has no strategic leverage on the states that it spies on. It is not big, powerful or endowed with strategic export commodities that are essential for other countries’ growth. Yet it is utterly trade dependent. Because of that, it is far more vulnerable to retaliation than its larger counterparts, especially if it turns out that NZ spies on its trade partners. Imagine what will happen if it is revealed that NZ and the other 5 Eyes partners spy on TPPA members in order to secure advantage and coordinate their negotiating strategies (keeping in mind that Australia, Canada and the US are all TPPA parties). What if if NZ spies on China, its biggest trade partner, at the behest of the US, with whom China has an increasingly tense strategic rivalry? What if it spies on Japan, Malaysia, Chile, Iran, India, Russia or the UAE? What if it spies on the Pacific Islands Forum and other regional organisations? What if it spies on Huawei or some other foreign corporations? Again, the possible range of retaliatory options is only surpassed by the probability that they will be applied once NZ’s espionage activities are made public.
In light of this it behooves the government to make contingency plans for the inevitable fallout/backlash that is coming our way. I say “our” rather than “their” because the response of the aggrieved parties will likely have, be it directly or as a trickle-down effect, a negative impact on most all Kiwis rather than just this government. But so far the government has indicated that it has no contingency plans in place and in fact has adopted a wait and see approach to what Greenwald will reveal.
If so, it will be too late to mitigate the negative external impact of his revelations. And if so, that is a sign of gross incompetence or negligence on the part of the PM and his cabinet because they have known for a long time what Snowden took with him regarding NZ (since the NSA shared the results of its forensic audit of the purloined NSA material once Snowden disappeared). It therefore had plenty of time to develop a plan of action whether or not Greenwald showed up to be part of Kim Dotcom’s “Moment of Truth” event.
All of which means that, if Greenwald delivers on his promises, New Zealand is in for a very rough ride over the next few months. That, much more so than Dotcom’s quest for revenge against John Key, is why tonight’s event could well be a signal moment in NZ history.
One of the important lessons taught by the study of military dictatorships is that when the military rules as an institution, such as in the case of the military-bureaaucratic regimes of Southern Europe, Latin America and East Asia in the 1960s through the 1980s, organisational professionalism is compromised. Having military officers sitting at desks as Ministers and department chiefs of non-military portfolios keeps them away from the training grounds and deployments in which military leadership is honed and exercised. Having soldiers patrol the streets and suppressing domestic dissent takes them away from the combat tasks that are supposedly their reason for being. Prolonged tenure in government makes both officers and enlisted personnel susceptible to the temptations of unchecked authority, from material corruption to unethical personal behaviour.
The very nature of military organisation is incompatible with governance. Whether it be collegial or Prussian style or some variant thereof, the military is a pyramidal organisation in which orders are passed from top to bottom and duties are delegated without question. There is no cabinet made up of ministerial equals. Instead, there is either one Military Commander or there is a High Command or Joint Staff comprised of similarly ranked chiefs of different armed service branches, and even then there is a first amongst equals. The further down the chain of command the more immediate and tight the degree of control of superiors over subordinates.
The rationale underpinning the organisational ethos and structure is to promote discipline under fire. There is little room for compromise and stakeholder consultation such as that which is the norm for most public agencies. There is no public consultation and few feedback loops other than after action reports and what soldiers tell their superiors in a chain of command. Superimposing a military organisation on the State apparatus may impose discipline (or at least fear) on the public bureaucracy, but the price paid for that is the softening of the military organisation in question.
The situation is compounded by militaries that use foreign peacekeeping missions as a substitute for combat exercises and as a source of remittances (since UN pay tends to be much high than local military pay in most of the world). Whatever dangers exist in peacekeeping, and there are many, keeping the peace is not, nor can it ever be, a substitute for combat training.
When taken together these factors erode the professional competence of the military as an institution. In countries that have military rule and conflicts with neighbours, this is often seen as a sign of weakness by adversaries. After all, pushing pencils and having long working lunches is not quite living like in a tent eating rations in between live fire exercises. Thus, somewhat ironically, prolonged military rule invites attack by hostile states in which the military does not rule and instead focuses on its combat role.
The capture of 45 Fijian Army peacekeepers in the Golan Heights by the Al-Nusra Front is a variant on this theme. The Fijians were part of a detachment that included a similar number of Filipino soldiers. When the al-Nusra rebels surrounded and attacked their jointly held UN outpost, the Filipinos, who have years of experience fighting Abu Sayyaf rebels in the southern Philippines, staged an armed retreat that allowed all of them to escape capture. They laid down suppressing fire as they drove their armoured column out of the compound at speed, and prevailed in the firefight occasioned by their escape. They suffered no losses.
The Fijians, on the other hand, although being similarly armed and equipped, surrendered without a shot. They are now waiting “divine justice” at the hands of their al-Nusra captors. Neither the Fijian military nor the military government can do anything about the situation, and instead have to reply on UN negotiators for the safe return of their soldiers. Other than appeals to the captors, the only response evident in Fiji is threats to the local Muslim community made by some Fijian nationalists.
The difference between the two outcomes in the Golan Heights is attributable to relative military professionalism. The Philippines Army does not govern and fights on a regular basis with the Abu Sayyaf rebels. They are battle hardened and disciplined as a result. The Fijian Army, in contrast, has ruled Fiji since 2006. Senior military leaders from the rank of major up have held managerial positions in the civilian administration, and the military spends most of its time engaged in domestic repression rather than training for combat. As part of the sanctions levels against it, Fijian military officers were denied admittance to Western military colleges and the Fijian military does not participate in multinational exercises. In spite of a limited military exchange program with China, the Fijian military has not engaged in the types of corporate training that makes for an effective fighting force against other armed adversaries. Instead, it has sent hundreds of soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions, but this is more due to the domestic importance of remittances from Fijian soldiers to their kin (especially in the villages) rather than securing the benefits of operational experience in conflict zones.
The result is that what used to be considered one of the more professional military organisations in the South Pacific is no longer capable of defending itself when attacked by irregular forces abroad. It lacks the leadership and discipline required to engage in organised violence against such armed opponents because it has spent too much time focused on ruling rather than serving its compatriots.
All of this illustrates the point that, beyond the negative impacts of military rule on society at large, the military as an institution is adversely affected by military rule. This is why “enlightened” militaries that stage coups try to relinquish direct control of government as quickly as they can. But others, perhaps safe in the knowledge that they have no immediate adversaries and enjoying the perks of governance, tend to linger in power. In spite of their lofty nation building rhetoric, the longer they retain power the more likely that the military will begin to lose the combat leadership and soldiering skills essential for survival in battle. And should that military ever find itself in battle, it stands a poor chance of victory when confronting hardened soldiers.
That has been proven sadly true for the Fijian Army in the Golan Heights.
During the 25 years I was in academia I wrote a fair bit on the subjects of democracy and democratisation, both in theory and in practice. I continued in that vein in some of my blogging on this site, including the 5 part series on deconstructing democracy in 2009. As part of my ruminations, I have delved from time to time into the subject of democratic accountability, specifically its vertical and horizontal dimensions, both of which are absolute requirements for the health of liberal democracy. Among other things and contrary to what some pundits might say, my understanding of the two dimensions of democratic accountability is what allows me to state categorically that dirty politics such as that practiced by the National Party’s vicious wing is not inherent to democracy
Vertical accountability refers to the accountability of the governors to the governed. The signal feature of this dimension are elections of those who govern, but also include the ability of the electorate to demand review, recall or sanction of non-elected officials such as those in the judiciary and civil service if and when their actions become to egregious or are ignored by the other branches of government. There a variety of methods with which to do so, but that requires a degree of horizontal accountability as well. In any event vertical accountability is aided by a robust, critical and independent media that draws public attention to what otherwise might be quiet indiscretions by those in office.
Here is where horizontal accountability comes in. Each branch of government is formally accountable to the others. In the event of malfeasance in one branch the other branches have a right and indeed duty to independently investigate any potential wrong doing. They must maintain a degree of institutional autonomy in order to do so, because otherwise they cannot exercise the degree of inquisitorial independence that is required for transparency and integrity to obtain.
It is this dimension where New Zealand appears deficient, and the proof of that is the inquiry that the Prime Minister has ordered into Judith Collins use of a public servant’s personal information. In this case the PM gets to frame the terms of reference of the inquiry, and has done so in way that assures that Collins will be exonerated. In political circles this might be called narrowing the focus to what is strictly illegal, but in common parlance it is known as acceptable corruption.
The inquiry conducted by the Inspector-General of the SIS into the hasty OIA release of sensitive SIS documents to a blogger linked to the government is more independent and therefore more transparent and honest, assuming that the IG does her job correctly.
But the problem remains that horizontal accountability in NZ is nowhere what it should be. Parliamentary committees are dominated by the government and often have limited inquisitorial powers. Crown Law has, time and time again, adjusted its prosecution priorities to accord more closely with government interests (recall the time and cost of the Zaoui and Urewera prosecutions, both of which ultimately reduced to far less than the government initially alleged). Some judges are said to lean politically one way or another when it comes to examining government behaviour.
Less we think that this overly friendly relationship between government and prosecutors be exclusive to National, let’s remember that the two prosecutions cited above began (and in Zaoui’s case ended) under the 5th Labour government.
Some say that the lack of a written constitution impedes the full exercise of horizontal accountability in NZ. Perhaps that is so but I also think that it is a product of habitual practice in a small country, where the political elites are for the most part a relatively small club that play by their own informal rules as much as they do by the law. Those in government are given fairly broad license when it comes to how they account for their actions to the other branches. Those in opposition wait for their turn in office to do the same. The judiciary and public bureaucracy publicly maintain their independence but at a senior level they play close attention to the interests of the government of the day.
Voters give a veneer of vertical accountability to the status quo by turning out for elections. Their susceptibility to spin and deflection makes them targets of the dirtier machinations of politicians, and in the absence of genuine horizontal accountability counter-weights that is all that is needed to govern. In such a context governance is all about bread and circus, or in the NZ case, pies and rugby. The fact that National has not suffered much in pre-election polling pretty much confirms this truth.
It can be argued that this is politics as usual, in the form of one hand washing the other in the interest of political stability. Indeed, all of this is perfectly acceptable, except that it is also perfectly, albeit not by legal definition, corrupt. But what is wrong with a little acceptable corruption amongst political friends so long as the public does not care and there are no real institutional checks on what they do so long as they do it quietly?
I could be wrong on this and John Key is just being a jerk when it comes to the terms of the Collins inquiry. But something tells me that the rot runs much deeper, and it will not stop should he and his nasty pack of party colleagues be voted out of office later this month.