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Defensive voting and split tickets.

datePosted on 14:31, May 3rd, 2016 by Pablo

As part of the ongoing effort to clarify some aspects of the US elections this year, this post focuses on two tactics: defensive voting and ticket splitting. Some readers may already be familiar with both concepts, but for those who are not, here is brief outline of what they involve.

Defensive Voting.

Defensive voting is the act of voting against someone by casting a ballot for their opponent not out of loyalty or agreement with the position of the opponent, but out of fear of the possibility of the disliked candidate winning. This may be due to a number of reasons but is usually based on a lesser evil approach: In order to prevent a greater evil from occurring in the form of a detestable candidate being elected, voters choose whatever alternative candidate is available who stands a chance of preventing the “bad guy” from prevailing. The idea is simply to prevent an unpalatable candidate from electoral victory even if the alternative is not entirely palatable either. There may be variations on this approach, such as voting for a clearly marginal candidate in order to help sideline a legitimate opponent, but the basic premise for such tactical voting is prevention, blocking or denial, not support, affirmation or promotion.

This is another reason why the US presidential race is so interesting. Polls show that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the most detested front-running candidates in US presidential history. Ted Cruz is equally loathed across the political spectrum. That means that more than the vote of their supporters, what will decide the outcome in November is who has the largest defensive voter turnout against them. A micro version of this scenario will play out at both major party conventions, since the “anyone but Trump” Republican factions and the Bernie Sanders supporters in the Democratic Party will, at least initially, vote against the front runners as much because of their dislike of them as out of support for their own candidates.

Depending on what happens at the conventions, in November it is entirely possible that some if not many Republican voters will vote for Clinton (should she win the nomination) or an independent candidate rather than Trump. Likewise, Sander’s supporters, if he does not win the nomination and receives no policy concessions in the Clinton platform, could well turn to a third party candidate such as that of the US Green Party. That could seriously tighten the race and perhaps even lead to a Trump victory, which from the standpoint of many progressives would simply help sharpen the contradictions in the US political system and lay the foundations for more significant change down the road (I refuse to use the term “revolutionary” because unlike Sanders and his supporters I have a full understanding of what social revolutions entail, and that does not include participating in deeply institutionalised electoral processes).

If the presidential race comes down to Clinton versus Trump or Cruz, then the deciding factor will be who has the most votes cast against them rather than for them. Given the intensity of negative feelings towards all of this motley crew, it could lead to a record turnout on both sides of the political divide and give previously non-committed Independent voters, particularly those who were not able to vote in closed primaries, a decisive role in the election.

Ticket splitting.

Those familiar with MMP understand this concept well. The  “split ticks” versus “two ticks” phenomenon is simple to grasp: you can either vote for a party and a candidate from that party in a general election (giving “two ticks” to the party vote and that party’s candidate from your electoral district), or you can split your party vote from your member vote (say, by voting for Labour in the party vote and a Green candidate in the member vote).

This type of voting is unusual in the US. Political parties tend to discourage so-called vote splitting because in most elections whole slates are presented as a ticket by the party to voters, for offices ranging from president to the local dog catcher. Even though voters, in practice, do split their votes among national, state and local offices, at the national level the US electoral system largely operates in binary, either/or fashion. That makes it a rare day when parties urge their supporters to split their national-level votes.

This year that day has come. Some in the GOP leadership are floating the idea that, should Trump win the party nomination, people should split their votes in the presidential race from their votes “down ticket,” that is, for other elective offices. The GOP has very real reason to be concerned that a Trump defeat could trickle down through the Senate, House of Representatives, Governorships and even important mayoral races. With that in mind, they are asking their supporters to vote Republican down ticket even if they do not vote for Trump (and in fact many in the GOP are urging voters to vote for anyone but Trump). As mentioned in my previous post, a shift in six Senate seats restores a Democratic majority to it. In the House the shift will have to be much larger but even one that decreases the Republican majority close to or below the 2/3 mark needed for passage of legislation can be devastating for GOP prospects during the next congressional term. With several prominent Republican politicians tainted by their endorsement of Trump (such as New Jersey governor Chris Christie), the chances of his dragging the entire party down with him are considered to be very possible. Thus the open calls for vote splitting on the part of some in the Republican leadership.

On the Democratic side there is less interest in vote splitting although Sander’s supporters are urging him to run as an independent if he loses the Democratic nomination for president. Should he do so, then his supporters will engage in vote splitting as well, voting for him rather than Clinton but voting for Democratic candidates down ticket. That will be what tightens the presidential race, as barring unforeseen circumstances Sanders can only act as a spoiler in the campaign for the White House. This is the most likely reason why the Clinton camp will be inclined to offer him significant policy concessions at the convention, which not only will mollify his supporters but also could help increase their defensive vote against Trump.

The Outlook.

Of course, in no small part because she is a female in a country that still has issues when it comes to gender and higher office, Clinton may have more defensive votes cast against her than those cast against Trump or Cruz. In that case the stage will be set for the mother of all federal government meltdowns once either Republican candidate assumes office, since whoever it is will very possibly be fighting Congressional Republicans as well as the Democrats from his perch in the Oval Office, to say nothing of many state an local authorities. But given those who have been scapegoated by Trump and Cruz’s neo-medieval social outlook, framed against the demographics of the country, the more likely scenario is that defensive minded voters turn out in droves, many of them splitting their tickets on the conservative side,  and Clinton rides to victory, perhaps in a landslide.

In the meantime, let’s get back to our popcorn and beverages and watch the circus/trainwreaks primaries continue to unfold.

I Wanna Be Dirty: James Shaw and Greens

datePosted on 10:50, April 29th, 2016 by E.A.

I write this only partially tongue in cheek and my original title was going to be a reference to a Kermit the Frog song*

A final piece of the puzzle fell into place this week with the announcement in the paper that Andrew Campbell, the Green party chief of staff, was leaving to allow “some fresh ideas and new legs” to take over in his role.

The funny thing was that he had been in the job less than a year after replacing Ken Spagnolo, the previous chief of staff for over eight years, in a direct move by co-leader James Shaw, to bring in new blood and ideas in preparation for the expected 2017 election (and probably clear the decks of any not down with Shaw’s new business friendly approach to the environment).

But that comment flies in the face of co-leader Metiria Turei’s statement about Andrew wanting to leave after the 2014 election but agreeing to stay on to help Shaw settle into the role. Has James settled in yet? If so why is Campbell the third senior party staffer to leave in short order? Coms and Policy Director David Cormack (a person some believe to be the actual brains behind the Greens) and Chief Press Secretary Leah Haines both immediately preceded him.

Personality conflicts in politics are not new and party staff generally know not to contradict the leader but when key staff are either removed (as in the case of Spagnolo) or leaving in droves (as with the other three) it takes more than claims of “coincidence” to assuage the growing feeling that something is not right in the good ship Green.

The obvious cause is new male co-leader James Shaw himself, who with his corporate background with HSBC (the money launderers bank of choice) and PriceWaterhouseCoopers (an organisation with so many scandals attached to its name I will not relate them here but encourage any who are interested to have a dig themselves) seems an extremely unusual choice for a party whose charter explicitly states “unlimited material growth is impossible” in two of its four articles.

Shaw won the co-leadership showdown in mid-2015 when Russell Norman moved off to greener pastures (pun intended) to work for Greenpeace NZ. An impressive feat for a first term MP and one, at least in my mind, had shades of the Brash Coup run on National in the 2000’s about it.

Shaw himself is pro-market and believes that it can be reformed to be sustainable, which is a laudable sentiment for a member of the young Nats but not in a party like the Greens. These kind of ideas, Shaw’s background and the recent statements from the party about doing and end run around Labour to work with National on some issues show that the Greens of the past may soon be replaced by the “Greens” of the future.

But perhaps it’s just my paranoia that I see all of these things as being connected, perhaps it’s just me, but somehow I don’t think so as various other in the blog sphere have also noted these changes and the fact that it warranted mention in the mainstream media leads me to think that we are on the cusp of a major change in the Greens.

In my previous “analyses” of Labour, National and NZ First I focused mostly on the failings of the past to illustrate the potential/possible issues in the future but in the case of the Greens I can’t do that.

The Greens currently stand alone in NZ politics as being an actual party of virtue in a parliament full of corruption, incompetence, nepotism and just plain criminality. They are a party which has a genuine political agenda which it has been willing to stand up for, which is why almost every other party in parliament hates them and why several sections of government keep their eye on them.

If any political party has ever been under watch by the SIS; monitored by the GCSB, infiltrated by the SIG, loathed by the Police and hated by Labour it’s the Greens. It’s a party which grew from the Values party in 1972, lived through the tumultuous years of the Alliance in the 90s before going it alone in the 2000s. This is a party that has explicitly argued for the removal of the Security Services as they currently are and our exit from the Five Eyes agreement as well as being an active and persistent thorn in the side of any government which doesn’t prioritize the environment or fails the social contract (Gareth Hughes blistering rebuttal to John Key’s recent parliament commencement speech is a fine example of this).

The Greens are a party which has taken the moral high ground from Labour in the wake of the leadership squabbles after Helen Clark departed (although some say Labour just gave it up when they started the reforms of 1984) and has wielded it ever since, using it like a magic cloak to deflect any criticisms.

And there have been criticisms aplenty over the years from the usual pat dismissals by politicians of their policy or position (often with no actual substance to back up why they don’t agree with them) to the all but outright taunts of being “governmental virgins” to the “bloody hippie tree hugger” comments which spew forth from many regular Kiwis when asked about the Green party or their policies. And that’s not even discussing the hate Labour has for the Greens.

If John Key could have all dissenting views in parliament rounded up and shipped off to a re-education “resort” the Greens would certainly be on that list but it would be “just business, nothing personal” to him. And, with only a small sprinkling of fantasy dust could one imagine members of the Greens and National meeting for a beer in Pickwicks after a “hard day” in the debating chamber. One could not imagine such a picture between the Greens and Labour no matter how much magic dust was going round.

If Labour could have all Greens rounded up it would not be “re-education” that they would receive but low altitude skydiving lessons from Air Force helicopters sans parachute out over Cook Straight at night, if it is business with National its personal with Labour.

The Greens owe a large part of their vote base to disgruntled Labour voters and Labour knows it. Labour has treated the Greens like vassals from the earliest days and given their position on the political spectrum expected them to back Labour no matter what (which is why the Greens extension of the hand of friendship to National, even on minor issues has further enraged Labour and provided a pragmatic, but also very dangerous, way to cut through the Gordian knot of being to the left of looser Labour on the political spectrum.

Worse still, the Greens are almost certainly going to gain at the polls as the 2017 election approaches (current polls have them riding high along with NZ First while Labour sags to 26% and National slips closer to 40%) and have proven to have no concern about exposing Labours (and specifically Helen Clark’s) hypocrisy (as its widely believed that they were responsible for the leaks that led to Seeds of Distrust; Nicky Hagar’s expose of Labours cover up of GE contamination in NZ) to get votes.

So in dissecting the Green party at this current time it’s not the past to which I am concerned but the future and to put it simply it looks like the Greens are about to (take a deep breath and say it with me) compromise. In daily use compromise is not a bad term but in politics it almost always means abandoning your principles to reach a short term expediency at the cost of both your long term supporters and policy goals.

For parties like National and Labour compromise (also known as sitting on the fence, seeing which way the wind blows and “flip flopping”) is easy as both have no morals and long since abandoned their core principles in pursuit of power for individual party members and rabid accommodation of whatever orthodoxy is being touted at the time but for the Greens this will not be so easy.

To begin with the Greens capture of the moral high ground is a strategic part of their appeal. They can take positions and advocate issues which would get other parties in hot water; lambaste the government of the day and catch the wind of popular but politically problematic issues (like the TPPA) only because they have this high ground, without it they would be another fringe party which would get whipped senseless with their own past faults and misdeeds if they dared to speak out. Truly they are the hand which can cast the first stone.

Another is that while Shaw himself may be a champagne environmentalist (the 21st century equivalent of Labours champagne socialists) many of the core rank and file are not. Every new voter to the Greens that is merely running from the nitwit antics in Labour will run straight back if either Labour shapes up and flies right (geddit?) or the “sustainable” future Shaw is presenting doesn’t allow people to continue to live their lives under the economic and social model they are accustomed to (for example if rising sea levels did actually require we give up driving cars and banning dairy farms). The core supporters of the greens will likely support the policy measures which reflect the party’s charter but angry voters seeking revenge on Labour or National by voting Green will not.

So the Greens are now at a crucial juncture and with the 2017 election approaching its clear that the Green brain trust has decided get into the game and dispense of the one thing that holds them back which is (pardon my French) governmental virginity. By taking the sandals off, combing the dreadlocks out and with a nice suit or sweater/skinny jeans combo from Hallensteins the Greens will be ready to go to the 2017 Ball and get their cherry popped by that nice Jewish boy from Christchurch or any other potential suitor (perhaps even giving a second chance to that boy next door after his previous sweaty fumbling’s and cloddish behavior).

But there are a few problems with this scenario and Shaw would do well to heed the lessons of history when it comes to playing with fire. The fate of the Lib Dems in the UK, the Maori Party and NZ First should serve as warnings to any minor party leader willing to put short term expediency ahead of long term progress.

Of the three the fate of the Lib Dems is probably the more pertinent. They spent 20 years building up a respectable position in UK politics, under a FPPs system no less, getting 20% of the vote and seats in the house only to piss it all away when in 2010 they supported the Tories in a hung parliament and began to abandon their core principles (as well as break a few key election promises). The voters, predictably, did not like this new direction and the party was slaughtered at the polls in 2015.

In retrospect it probably looked like a bad move to the Lib Dems, but only in retrospect. To everyone else it was clear from the get go that it was a bone headed move and a clear sell out.

Closer to home Winston Peters brainless stunt in 1996 (discussed in my earlier post) and the Maori Parties deal with the devil in 2008 saw both suffer for letting their leadership sell out the voters for a seat at the cabinet table.

It would be unfair though to pin all the blame on Shaw though. He was elected through the Greens relatively fair leadership selection process (one not as convoluted as Labours or as secretive as Nationals) so it appears that he is not the only Champagne environmentalist in the Greens and perhaps many in the party itself want to stop being the wallflower of NZ politics and run naked through the streets singing “Touch-A-Touch-A-Touch-A-Touch Me!”

If this is the case then James Shaw and Metiria Turei are the Brad and Janet of NZ politics while Key is Frank N Furter (with possibly Winston as Riff Raff, Andrew Little as Dr Scott and yours truly as the Narrator). I will leave you to fill in the rest of the cast roles as you see fit.

But the puzzle I referred to at the start of this post has not yet been solved but I think the picture is becoming clearer. If we discount the “coincidence” argument in favour of a more holistic approach we see that new leadership with new ideas, mass changes in key staff and indications of attempts to exit the political corner that the Greens have painted themselves into shows a party on the cusp of a major political shift, a party that is smelling the winds of change and planning to take full advantage of them.

The dangers of this course of action are not always clear and while I personally don’t subscribe to the following rumors (at least not yet) I feel they are worth mention here just to add some zest to an otherwise dull analysis and to indicate just how problematic the issue is.

They are: a) Shaw is a corporate Trojan horse (ala Don Brash in both the National and ACT coups); b) Shaw is an agent provocateur in the pay of the security services (not so astounding once you realize that it’s a known fact that the security services have had paid informants in environmental groups since the 90s; or  c) the Greens have a serious case of political blue balls and are now prepared to do anything (and I mean “anything”) to get into power (this one could be answered a lot easier if we knew who exactly is funding the Greens, not something I have had time to do yet but if anyone wants to let me know I would be grateful).

But at the end of the day the Greens are still a party which is currently fighting the good fight and with an entirely justified moral stance and matching policy prescriptions. When you match up any doubts about the party with the generally disgusting and loathsome behavior of the rest of the rabble in parliament a few potential worries about their direction pale into significance. Only time will tell if it stays that way.

* Its Not Easy Being Green/Bein’ Green.

Some details about the US election campaign.

datePosted on 14:45, April 22nd, 2016 by Pablo

Coverage of the US election in NZ is pretty bad. The local media pundits are shallow at best and take their lead from US cable news services. The best analyses are either reprints or canned footage from US media outlets or in local political blogs (save the rabid frothing on certain reactionary outlets).

Since I get to vote in the elections I follow them pretty closely. Also, having been  based in the US for the twenty years prior to my arrival in NZ, I have practical experience with them, to including voting in 6 states. Because the coverage in NZ is sketchy on certain key details and because it follows the crude narrative of the Yank media, I figured I would offer a short primer on some key details leading up to the Republican and Democratic conventions in a few months.

Open versus closed primaries. 

Primary elections are held in all 50 states and US territories during presidential election years in order to award delegates to candidates pursuing the presidential nomination of their respective parties. The amount of delegates is based upon the number of registered members of a party in a given state, divided among the number of congressional districts in that state. In some states the awarding of delegates is a winner take all affair, while in others it is proportional to the number of votes each candidate receives out of the total number of people voting in a party’s’ primary. In some states there are caucuses instead of primaries, which are more consultative and informal than elections and offer greater leeway in delegate selection and commitment to candidates. Of course, like so much else in US elections, there is a fair bit of gerrymandering and dubious exchanges involved in delegate apportionment, but the general principle is as outlined.

In “closed” primaries only registered supporters of a given party may vote in that party’s primary. That forces voters to declare a preference in advance of the primary. The time frame for registering a party preference in order to be eligible to vote varies from state to state. For example, in Florida, where I am registered to vote, a person must register at least 60 days before the primary election. In New York the registration deadline is six months before the primary election date.

In closed primaries independent voters must either declare a party preference by the official registration deadline or else they are excluded from voting in the primary. This is important because the majority (40 percent) of US voters declare themselves to be Independents (the Democrats and GOP get around 29 percent and 27 percent of all registered voters). The motive for holding closed primaries is twofold: to suppress the vote in order to eliminate uncertainties on election day (since most independents either do not or cannot vote in party primaries); and to thereby allow the most committed party supporters to determine who the winning candidate will be. Although much attention has been directed at Trump and Sander’s complaints about the delegate selection process and inability of independents to vote, respectively, the hard fact is that both the Democratic Party and GOP try to control the primary voting process via closed elections in most states. The Democratic and Republican National Committees co-ordinate (some would say conspire) with state and local party officials to add just enough opaqueness to the process so that electoral uncertainty is limited while the appearance of free and fair elections is maintained.

In “open” primaries voters do not have to register prior to the election date. They can simply declare a party preference on election day or shortly before the election, the walk into the voting station with the voting papers of the party they have chosen. The only requirement for voting is that they show proof of residence in a given state. This allows independent voters to often have a decisive impact on the outcome and leads to greater amounts of strategic voting. For instance, when I lived in Virginia and later in Arizona, which were open primary states during the times I lived there, I would often vote in the Republican primary in order to vote for the most troglodyte candidate on the ballot. My hope was that in doing so I would help said candidate win the nomination because he (it was always a he) was unelectable in the general election. Unfortunately that did not always happen, but you get the general idea.

“Open” primaries are often a better indication of general election outcomes because they are less dominated by internal party logics and less “controllable” by party bosses. Conversely, “closed” primaries tend to reflect better the desires of committed party voters, something that may or may not be translatable into general election victories.

Another important thing to remember is not so much the percentages of the vote won by each candidate but the total number of votes registered for each party in a given primary. For example, in the recent “closed” New York primary the total GOP vote was around 800,000 whereas the Democratic vote was close to 1.8 million (that is, more than double the Republican vote). In conservative rural states such as those of the Midwest and South (the so-called red states), the numbers for each party are reversed (and much lower in aggregate). So a candidate winning by huge margins in party primaries that have significantly fewer voters than the opposition is no sure bet to go on and win a general election.

It is useful to keep this statistic in mind when projecting out to the general election. For example, it does not matter if Trump wins 80 percent of the GOP vote in a primary in which the GOP receives less than half of the total number of votes than that received by the Democratic Party candidates because come general election day his numbers will have to bolstered by a huge amount of independent votes (who are allowed to vote in general elections for whomever they prefer). Since most Independents tend to vote Democratic in general elections, that means that not only will he have to have a historic turn out by Republican voters in his favour (again, at just 27 percent of the general electorate), but he will also have to overcome a deeply rooted historic Independent voting trend if he is to win. That is a big ask.

Brokered or Contested Conventions.

Most national party conventions in US presidential election years are more a coronation than a nomination. Usually the preferred candidate has the winning threshold of delegate numbers pretty much in hand by May or early June, so the conventions (which are always held in July or early August in order to be able to dedicate at least three months to the national campaign) are mere formalities that have become increasingly garish and circus-like in recent years. Long on style and short on substance, these uncontested conventions are designed to show party unity and promote patriotic appeal in the eyes of uncommitted voters.

“Brokered” or “contested” conventions are a whole other kettle of fish. In these type of conventions no candidate has the winning number of delegates on the day the convention opens. That leads to a series of ballots amongst delegates until one candidate emerges with a 50 percent plus one vote majority. The first ballot is a so-called “loyalty” ballot in which delegates vote for whom they are pledged to (the saying is that you vote for the person who brought you to the big dance). Since the first ballot only serves to confirm the lack of a delegate majority by any candidate, then a subsequent round of balloting occurs until a majority candidate is decided upon. That is where things get interesting because after the first loyalty ballot delegates are released from their pledges and can support whomever they think has the best chance of winning the general election (or at least presumably that is the logic at play. It is entirely possible that some delegates may play to lose by selecting an unelectable presidential candidate in order to eliminate him or her from party politics after the defeat).

Balloting continues until a candidate is selected. That not only brings intra-party conflicts out into the open. It also is where the backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms, the backstabbing, horse trading and sausage-making all come into play. It is an ugly process that often leads the winning candidate battered and bruised rather than sanctified, which in turns leads to a weakened position heading into the general election–something the opposing party candidate will pounce on.

If I recall correctly, the last brokered convention was in 1979, when Ted Kennedy challenged sitting president Jimmy Carter at the Democratic convention. Carter won the party nomination, only to be trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election. As people noted at the time, if an incumbent president could be challenged at his own party convention, why should voters think that he was worth re-electing?

Brokered or contested elections are bad news for the parties in question. That is why both the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) are doing everything they can to derail the campaigns of the two “outsiders” in the race, Sanders and Trump. Remember that Bernie Sanders has never been a Democrat. From his days as mayor of Burlington, Vermont to his Senate career, he ran and served as an Independent until the time he entered the Democratic presidential nomination campaign. The DNC fears and loathes him, a sentiment made worse by the fact that he has derailed what was supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s inevitable and uncontested  march to the presidency. Now, the path to coronation is not so certain. Clinton needs to win 66 percent of the remaining delegates in order to secure the nomination. With states like California, Oregon, Maryland and Pennsylvania still in play, that task is not going to be easy. Even if she does win enough delegates to secure the nomination before the convention (and the selection of special interest group “super delegates” was designed to ensure that), she will have to make concessions to Sanders’ policy platform if she is to retain the support of his followers (who otherwise will not vote for her even if they fear a Trump or Cruz presidency). This complicates things for her as well as for her largest patrons, since Bernie has his sights firmly focused on Wall Street and other corporate lobbies like Big Phrama that have donated massively to her campaign. And if Clinton does not secure 66 percent of the remaining delegates, then a contested convention is in her future.

As for Trump, well, he is the fly in the RNC ointment. If he gets the necessary amount of delegates by the time of the convention, then the GOP will be forced by their own rules to award him the nomination. If that happens there is some talk of the GOP running an “independent” candidate against him so as to distance their brand from his name in an election that they expect to lose.

If Trump does not secure the necessary number of delegates before the convention, then a brokered convention is likely. The RNC both fears and wants that to happen. Fears, because it most likely will lead to defeat in November. Wants, because it could be the only way to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. If the convention is brokered or contested it is probable that Trump will be denied the nomination in favour of a “compromise” candidate even if he has the most delegate votes in the first round of balloting.  If so, it is likely that he will not go quietly and may mount his own “independent” campaign. Either way, the GOP is doomed in the general election because whoever runs an independent campaign on the Right will divide conservative voters and forfeit the chance of success against Hillary (with or without Bernie’s supporters).

Trump displays his lack of political understanding when he rails about delegate selection and how the person who gets the most GOP votes nation-wide should win the nomination. He fails to understand that, as with the Electoral College and the Senate, delegate selection is specifically designed to put the brakes on demagogic or populist appeals and mass influence over party politics. Moreover, he claims that even if he comes up short (say, by a hundred or less delegates out of the 1237 needed to win the nomination), as the leader in pledged delegates entering the convention he should be given the nomination much in the way a conceded putt is given in golf.

In doing so  he evidences exactly the disdain for institutional rules and procedures that the party elite is most concerned about. His rhetoric has already trashed many GOP sacred cows, so his push to circumvent or change its convention rules is seen as a major step towards the party’s demise (at least in its present form). Add to that his ignorance of even the most elementary notions of separation of powers and Executive Authority, and you have a GOP disaster-in-chief in the making. Heck, Trump as president (or Cruz for that matter) could well make Dubya Bush look positively Churchillian in comparison. Hence the RNC desire to snuff him out, and the only way to do so short of assassination is to force a brokered convention or run an “independent” candidate against him even if it ensures a loss in November.

 Campaign Financing.

I will not get into the intricacies of US campaign financing laws save for a couple of items. Individual contributions to candidates are limited but contributions to so-called Political Action Committees (PACs and Super PACs) are not. Under US electoral law corporations and lobbying groups are considered to be the same as individuals (i.e. there is no ceiling on contributions to PACs). PACs have been created as a way to circumvent the limitations on contributions to candidates and often serve as thinly disguised fronts for individual campaigns. Most of the money used to buy advertising, pay campaign staff and conduct the street level, grassroots get-out-the-vote work is channeled through PACs.

However, there is a twist. Before the national conventions, the DNC and RNC are prohibited from donating money to the campaigns of individual presidential candidates. Conversely, individual candidates can fund raise for themselves but not for others. This is an important detail because much fund-raising done by candidates like Hillary Clinton is done to channel money to so-called “coattail” candidates, that is, people in her party running for non-presidential offices who can benefit from the trickle down effect of her star power. Remember that in a presidential election year it is not just the presidency that is at stake. The entire House of Representatives (elected every two years) and one third of the Senate (elected every six years) are up for grabs as well, as are host of state and local offices.  This year 34 Senate seats are being contested and a shift in six seats would restore a Democratic majority, something that is almost as important to a Democratic presidency as is the person who holds it.

Therein lies the rub. None of the candidates are legally allowed to hold coattail fund-raisers and neither of the party national committees can help fund their candidacies until the nomination is secured. The Sanders campaign has cried foul after Hillary mentioned that her fund-raising was designed not just for herself but for other candidates, but the DNC has dismissed her slip of the tongue as inconsequential. In any event the practical solution to campaign financing is to channel all funds through PACs, which can then be instructed to finance campaigns for political offices up and down the ballot.

This is where, again, Bernie and The Donald have problems. The DNC and RNC are clearly channeling PAC money away from them and towards their rivals. Their own fund-raising efforts are focused on themselves without coattail-inducing support. Bernie has raised millions in small donations from individuals and some (mostly union) money, but is virtually devoid of serious PAC support. Trump is self-funded and it is debatable as to whether the RNC will reverse itself and direct money towards him in the event he secures the GOP nomination. If it does not, even his millions may not be enough to counter a well-financed, PAC-driven Democratic campaign with coattail effect, or even an “independent” GOP campaign focused more on securing the non-presidential positions on the ballot rather than the presidency.

In summation, once you strip away the dog and pony show aspects of the US election campaign, what you get is a contest run by two major parties that are authoritarian and hierarchical at their core, where both attempt to control voting outcomes from above rather than below, and which use electoral frameworks, convention rules and circuitous campaign financing to achieve that end. In that regard, the prospects for victory in November clearly lay on the Democratic side, whereas the prospects for an open party rupture is patently evident in the GOP.

Let the circuses conventions begin!

 

A culture of tax evasion.

datePosted on 11:25, April 15th, 2016 by Pablo

I do not understand what the fuss is all about when it comes to John Key and the revelations in the so-called “Panama Papers.” So what if he and other Kiwi high rollers shield their incomes and assets from the IRD in assorted trusts, funds, investments and even shell companies? Isn’t it an axiom of capitalism that, as Donald Trump has openly stated, you try to avoid as much tax payment as possible? Forget all this nonsense about “paying one’s fair share of taxes.” Only rubes and idealists do that. Everyone else tries to minimise their tax exposure and the rich pricks just do so on a grander and more elaborate scale.

I say this because the entire NZ economy is riddled with tax avoidance. One of the things that struck me after I moved to NZ is the amount of cash transactions that are done with the explicit intention of avoiding tax. Almost every single tradesperson I have dealt with in the course of my time here has proposed a cash transaction that avoids GST, but more importantly, avoids traceable electronic or paper (cheque) financial transfers. And the offers of non-GST cash transactions are done without shame or concern; it is just part of doing business for many people and everyone knows it and acts accordingly based on their own circumstances.

If what I have seen in the small business trade and service sector is any indication, then it is reasonable to expect that such attitudes percolate upwards into larger corporate structures and repositories of wealth. Since these are too big to hide in a cash-only parallel market, the next best thing is to engage in tax evasion and income-hiding schemes whose complexity is based upon the ability of the tax authorities to uncover them. The move to off-shore trusts and the like is simply a matter of keeping one or two steps ahead of the law and three steps ahead of enforcement mechanisms. If those in government choose to structure the financial regulatory regime in such a way that it keeps the holders of wealth five to ten steps ahead of the tax authorities then, well, you get what you vote for.

The difference between the approach of NZ high and low rollers when it comes to tax evasion is in scale, not kind.

This is one reason why I believe that the Transparency International rankings that have NZ listed among the top three least corrupt nations on earth are rubbish.  Add to that the nepotism, cronyism, shoulder-tapping, sinecure swapping and insider trading of everything from personal and professional favours to board directorships to stock shares, and the picture of NZ is far less rosy and far more, let us say, “pragmatic.”  I am particularly critical of the TI indexes because not only are they mostly based on reputational analysis (mostly offered by those who stand to gain from gaming the system), but because I participated in a TI survey of NZ’s intelligence and defense forces and saw my scores (and those of some others) pretty much discarded in favour of higher scores offered by insiders that led to an overall TI assessment that NZ has the highest standard of professional integrity amongst the defense and intelligence services in the Asia-Pacific.

Even so, I am one of those who are a bit idealistic when it comes to taxes. I understand the concept of public goods and therefore comprehend the rationale behind taxation. In NZ I pay tax more readily at a higher rate than I did in the US because, among other things, I am not paying to support a huge war machine that in turn serves the interests of a taxpayer subsidised military-industrial complex. As a small business owner I feel the burden of taxation more heavily and immediately than the corporate moguls that run the nation’s largest firms and whose bottom lines rest on minimising two things: their tax liabilities and their labour force wage bills. Yet I try to believe that I am contributing my small bit towards maintaining a high standard of public education, health and welfare that will lead to future generations of productive and happy citizens (although my experience with NZ academia suggests seriously diminishing returns in that sector, and I have serious doubts that overall heath, education and welfare outcomes are on the rise rather than in decline as a result of nearly a decade of National government public policies).

In spite of these misgivings, I remain a residual idealist and want to believe that my contributions, when taken collectively with those of others, matter for the present and future well-being of NZ. But I do not expect others to share the same hopelessly naive view of how the systems works, and I therefore do not begrudge them trying to dodge the taxman as much as possible. Because in a country where market-reifying ideologies reign supreme in virtually every facet of life, only a fool like me would think that paying taxes is anything but state-imposed theft levied on the productive in order to buy the acquiescence of the parasitical. I know this to be true because National, ACT and certain elements in Labour tell me so, and who am I to argue with those who dominate our economic, political and social narrative?

I should have realized that once I turned my jaundiced eye on Labour and National and started spouting my biased opinions about them I would have to “analyze” the rest of the denizens of the NZ political ecosystem. So here we go.

 

It’s been nearly 40 years since Winston Peters first entered parliament as an MP (1978) and over 40 since he entered politics (joining National in 1975).

In that time he has run the gamut of politics many times and held almost every position in government imaginable (MP, party leader, cabinet member, Minister, opposition MP, leader of party with no seats) as well as been investigated (and cleared) by the Serious Fraud Office, censured by parliaments privileges committee and been the recipient of secret donations from wealthy businessmen.

The man was also the instigator of Winebox Inquiry, fought and squabbled with more than one Prime Minister, been exiled from various cabinets, left one political party, formed one of his own and rumored to be the patron saint of one small special branch of a larger government department.

Winston Peters is the James Brown of New Zealand politics: a skilled and dynamic entertainer who always gives good show but is a dictatorial bandleader who overworked and under paid his backing bands (The Tight Five is to Winston as the Famous Flames are to James) all to enhance his own reputation.

To be sure he (Winston not James) is highly entertaining and rarely fails to provide an entertaining quote or attention grabbing headline but the substance of his actions have rarely lived up to his hype (unlike James) and his effect on politics or NZ as a whole (super gold card aside) is divisive at best and possibly toxic at its worst.

But like him or loath him he has survived many of his friends and critics and seen off more than one challenger to his rule of NZ First. At its simplest Winston Peters is a political survivor.

He survived the 2008 blowout of NZ First which saw many write him off only to come back in 2011 (with a respectable 8% in the polls) and then pull off one of the most astounding upsets in New Zealand Politics by not only breaching the walls of National stronghold Northland but taking it convincingly (over 50%) in his first ever time campaigning there.

But what Winston is really known for and what has made him such an enduring figure on the New Zealand political landscape (one littered with wanna-be greats, has-beens and also-rans along with many forgettable politicians and PMs) is the fact that he has been instrumental in maintaining not one, but two minority governments (National in 1996 and Labour in 2005) in their hour of need and in doing so set them up for their later defeat by allowing them to succumb to third term arrogance.

Few who lived through 1996 can forget how heated the election campaign got, the visible anger on Bolgers face during his and Peters famous shouting matches. Winston all but pledged on his mother’s grave that he would never go with National and that it was time for a change and then went with National after nearly two months of protracted negotiations haggling in New Zealand’s first ever MMP election; thereby denying Helen Clark the chance to be the first ever female PM and dooming New Zealand to three more years of the National Governments neo-liberal frenzy of privatization, deregulation and Business Round Table gibberish.

Still the glove was on the other foot when in 2005 Winston was back and this time doing what said he would do nine years earlier, supporting Labour in a collation government. But things had changed as it was now Labour that was struggling to maintain its lead and National under Brash managed to get 39% of the vote and would have been government had Winnie gone with his old alma mater like previously. Instead he backed a grateful Helen, got a swag full of political spoil and set Labour up for the very same fall National got when he supported them in 96.

It’s an interesting counterfactual to consider how things would have been like had Winston gone the other way (Labour in 1996 and National in 2005). Would things have been any different? The persistent and apocryphal myth around Wellington is that in the wake of Nationals disintegration in 99 and the early 2000’s Helen Clark was thankful that Winston had gone with National at the time, only forget the warning of history when she turned to him for support in 05 (and suffered the same fate as Shipley and Co).

You would almost think he had done it just for some sort of kinky thrill and with an election in 2017 looming and NZ First currently holding at 9% in the polls Winston may again be in the position to decide who is in power and who is PM. But the hand of support he offers has proven to be short term political expediency followed by long term electoral toxicity.*

But unlike 1996, 2017 will not see National desperately trying to get a third term or deeply unpopular in the polls (not unless John Key is found out to be an extremely skilled chatbot between now and then) and with no clear pretenders to the throne (Labour in disunity at 28% and Greens at 10% would not be enough to do it alone against National at their current polling of 50%) the key figure under current polling projections is the one, and only, Winston Peters.

But there are some complications in the script which Key and National are sure to try and exploit and one of those likely to get exploited if they are not careful will be Winston Peters.

To start, Winston is genuinely opposed to the Greens and has previously mooted going into coalition govt with them. That means that NZ First would not back a Labour government if the Greens were also part of the package. This leaves Labour with the near impossible task of making up the missing support (getting around 40% of the vote) to enable it to form a government with the Greens if NZ First will not support them.

So if Labour cannot get enough support to jettison the Greens (something they would love to do anyway) and Winston will not come to the party and this leaves him with only two options: stay independent or support National (either in coalition or tacitly) because if Labour cannot form a government then John Key will rule for a fourth term by default.

The only alternative to this scenario is that Winston swallows his pride and decides to go into coalition with Labour and the Greens. This is not an impossible scenario but it’s less likely than him rejecting anything to do with the Greens.

It would be an uneasy alliance at best and possibly way too volatile, given Winston’s track record of grandstanding and political belligerence, to survive for long. The net result of such a coalition collapsing would be an electoral bloodbath as Labour would have blown its golden opportunity to get back into power while National would swoop like rabid wolves on a straggling sheep.

Finally making this all the more toxic is the question of where he is cobbling his votes from. Conventional wisdom would say from National or the undecided middle (Winston is long past having any credible electoral draw on the Left after his betrayal in 96) but I suspect that the rising theme of electoral insurrection in the world today may end up seeing anyone who promises to “smash the pointy headed bastards in the capital” getting increased vote share based purely on their angry rhetoric, push button messaging and opposition stance. Which is a situation tailor made for Winston Peters.

Winston extracted maximum gain for himself in both 96 and 05 but failed to see out a single governmental term in the governments he kept alive (probably because his support was only a superficial fix for deeper structural problems). In 98, after Jenny Shipley ran her noisy coup on Jim Bolger in public (in direct opposition to National Party tradition of keeping the bloodletting behind closed doors), Winston was kicked from cabinet due to endless squabbling with her and promptly took his toys (read support for government) and went home.

In 2005 he was rather quicker in the courtship but wanted a lot more bling to walk down the aisle only to turn out to be a lethal political liability as he was engulfed in various dodgy scandals that left his legacy in tatters (except for the devout worship in the afore mentioned section of government and the horse racing industry which reaped a financial windfall from his tenure as Minister for Racing which continues to this day) and saw NZ First go below the five percent threshold and Winston get driven out of his long term seat of Tauranga.

In the wake of all this many said that it was the end of Winston but he said it was not and vowed to return. And surprise surprise he was right, after a comeback in 2011 he expanded that in 2014 and then stole Northland from National in 2015.

And if the 2017 election rolls around and current polling continues then the man who may decide the outcome will be the same man who previously keep alive two struggling and unpopular governments in the face of calls for change.

Out of such a situation Winston may walk like a phoenix from the fire; the comeback kid and kingmaker again squarely in the middle and ready to decide the fate of NZ. What his price may be and what costs will be borne by the country are yet not known but the man is no fool and he will have gauged the coming mood well (as his electoral Blitzkrieg in Northland showed) and be playing to get maximum gain for himself.

It would be incorrect to label Winston a simple populist (or demagogue) but neither is he a democrat or man of the people. Any benefits accrued by the electorate from his presence in government are mostly secondary to keeping him in politics. He is a one man political brand and when he does decide to get out of the game NZ First will on death watch but NZ politics will be a lot less colorful.

 

* – I’m not really blaming Winston for the political degradation of both Labour and National in modern times but it makes an interesting hypothesis.

 

Apologies in advance for the hyperbole but once I got on a roll it was impossible to stop.

 

I got bagged last week by some who knew me and read my post about Andrew Little and Labour as I appeared to them (and not all of them would fit into the mold of Left or Liberal) as a closet or crypto sympathizer for National and John Key and all they stand for.

This of course would be far from the truth, as on the political spectrum, I consider myself a fascist anarchist and in no way supportive of National. But as I said last week I am no fan of Labour but some took my last post as a clear vote for the Senor Key and Co. So to keep the karmic balance this post will peel away the blue on National corpse and see what lies underneath (I was planning to write about the security services in NZ but c’est la vie).

The difference between my analysis of Labour and National is that while my focus on Labour was on the failures of the party over the failures of individuals, National is the opposite it’s the failures of individuals that dominates the party and has done so for over a decade now.

To start John Key has been very successful as a politician, so successful in fact that it would be easier to call National the “John Key Party” than refer to them as National. But Keys success as Politician has come at a cost, to both himself and the John Key Party.

Firstly Keys success as politician does not translate well into actual leadership, legacy or being remembered as PM. The multitude of screw ups, gaffs, scandals, dodgy behavior, greedy and corrupt behavior by Keys minions is legion which shows that despite his high polling he has been unable to keep his employees from running amok when his eyes are not directly on them.

This is because that Key has his own version of the Fuhrerprinzip (leadership principle) in play here. He may not have started out as the dictator of National but as the success of the party rests entirely on his ongoing popularity it’s become his show and his show only and much like other dictators Key keeps those under him busy squabbling for power so that they don’t have time to unite against him or do too much damage.

Unfortunately political golems that comprise the party, such as the reptilian Judith Collins, failed Wagnerian/Faustian Jerry Brownlee and power hungry Steven Joyce, feature regularly in the press but rarely for good reasons.

Collins misdeeds are numerous and not even worth mentioning here except that it’s clear that Key brought her back into cabinet after the scandal of Dirty Politics and who she was dining with in China under the old adage of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’. The smiling assassin wants to see the blade coming and by keeping Collins on a short leash and continuing to utilize her attack dog qualities he keeps her occupied and not with no further time to plot his overthrow, as had been rumored.

Brownlee also has been a useful tool to Key as flak catcher for the growing disquiet around the Christchurch Rebuild (nepotism, shoddy work practices and questionable dealings) but Brownlee is really known for little but his escapades in the media where he tried to start a war with Finland, Flouted Civil Aviation Authority rules and has demonstrated that his mouth is not connected to his brain. Also his placement as Minister of Defense, while seeming important, is actually a demotion to a backwater government department as a way of keeping him busy and out of trouble (much in the same vein that Murray Mcully’s appointment to the Foreign Affairs kept him out of the way by keeping him out of the country as much as possible) with all those “important” meetings overseas.

Meanwhile Steven Joyce oversaw his Frankenstein creation of MBIE (among other misdeeds), cobbling together disparate ministries and sections of government into an unholy (and unworkable) creation, staffed at senior levels with barely competent DCEs and then jammed into a chicken coop of a building complete with opulent surrounds at taxpayer expense. It was a power grab pure and simple and much in the vein of the SS in Germany capturing police and security functions under the banner of “centralization” but it’s become a bloated sagging beast with a toxic work culture and extremely high union membership.

But it’s not only the senior ministers that have appeared in the media as creatures that you’d rather not sit next to on the bus. Arron Gilmore will be forever remembered as for his arrogant outburst regarding who he was in regards to his membership in the John Key Party and current troubles with Todd Barclay’s staff show that the newer members of the party won’t be lax when it comes to acting like they are to the manor born.

And these are just examples that I am pulling off the top of my head. There are so many more that it does seem at times that the New Zealand political press are running a concerted campaign to discredit the Senor Key Party by publishing only the bad news but the truth is that the behavior of the members of the party has long been grossly out of touch with expected standards of decency and behavior. The short lived political career of Pansy Wong springs to mind or the highly inappropriate behavior of Maurice Williamson in calling the police when a rich “friend” was in trouble for are just a few more that freely spring to mind.

But there is a method to my madness in cataloging these examples of nether-spawn here and it’s to place the popularity of Key in clear contrast to the Party (and its dismal inhabitants) he fronts.

Key is the Golden Boy, popular in the polls and able to appear in public during daylight hours. But the shadow he casts is long and dark and it’s in the darkness that things grow and thrive, things which cannot go into the light lest they die from exposure.

This is a tale of horror and dark deeds, of human sacrifice and blood, of a pact with demons, a deal with the devil.

Our tale begins in 1999, after nine years in government (and the last three at the behest of Winston Peters) Jenny Shipley (now being sued as a former director of Mainzeal) steered the party onto the rocks of Defeat and Helen Clark led Labour into power. Nationals performance in 1999 was dismal but was nothing to the beating it got in 2002 (20%; it’s lowest ever election result and a nadir even lower than anything achieved by Labour at the polls).

Then several strange things happened but to sum it up simply the party was taken over/bought out in aggressive coup by right-wing interests fronted by Don Brash and the Business Roundtable (Now known as the New Zealand Initiative in an attempt to re-brand its tarnished image). Bill English (possibly the last real link to National of the past times) was sacrificed publicly and painfully on the altar of political convenience and John Key entered the party (or if rumors are to be believed he was aggressively recruited due to his wealth and connections).

Weather Brash had sold his soul to get the leadership or was a patsy may never be known but it’s around this time that the remaining country elements of the party were being cleared out and put off to pasture (no pun intended). Dark words and incantations had been whispered and evil things summoned and now the life that flowed through the party was no human blood but a mix of money, religion and spin.

Shortly after Brash self-destructed in an orgy of greasy stories about his sex life and revelations from Nicky Hagar’s Hollow Men showed that the party was not only beholden to larger business interests but also rapidly becoming a vehicle for money and religion in ways that mirror the strange nexus of religion and power in US evangelicals. Stepping into the breach in 2006 at this time was John Key and the party’s fortunes mysteriously began to rise (to be fair Brash’s infamous Orewa speech had helped to raise the party’s fortunes but his own personal culpability was still poison to the party).

And rise they have but only in relation to Keys personal popularity and when he falls the party will fall with him.

By listing only some of the stains found on the scaly carcass of the party it’s clear that the John Key Party is not only wholly corrupt but incapable of behaving in any manner that requires honesty, decency or integrity and that without the magic of John Key National would have either self-destructed (ala Labour with endless power struggles and coup attempts) or faded into electoral irrelevance by now.

So what’s the plan in the post Key environment for the misanthropes of National? Which of the shambling horrors currently prowling the halls of the Beehive would the average Kiwi voter go for?

The first (and only) name that springs to my mind is Simon Powers. He was being groomed for the role by being chief whip and had the looks, and ability to speak without putting his foot in his mouth but Powers left after two terms (perhaps sensing the poison in the chalice being offered to him) for greener pastures (Run Simon, run!).

Other than that it’s difficult if not impossible to imagine anyone of the current crop of National MPs now sitting at the top level being able to either lead the party without its descending into a hellish power struggle or elicit any positive reaction in the polls to the grotesque suggestion that they may be likable or have any human feelings (or perhaps are even human). Further with the junior ranks either imploding due to swollen hubris or simply because so many National MPs (like Labour’s middle and bottom tiers) are just seat fillers, cautious drones taking their nice salary and doing little for their electorates, no voter in their right mind would be ticking their name on the ballot form either.

A clear example of this hideous electoral dislocation is Winston Peter’s astounding win in the Northland by-election. In what was supposed to be a safe National seat (until Mike Sabine was found to be under investigation by the Police for Assault in another instance of reprehensible behavior) Winston took his traveling medicine show out on the hustings and reaped the spoils of Nationals arrogance and terrible treatment of the electorate.

And if your still reading at this point you may be getting the picture. National is a party that is on life support and that life support is John Key. As soon as he leaves or no longer has the magic touch in the polls the party will be a shambling corpse, an undead husk full of nothing but vile waste and human maggots.

No one is going to vote for Judith Collins, Jerry Brownlee or any of the others grim specters as leader or as PM and the desperate reliance on dirty tricks and heavily manufactured (official and unofficial) spin has left the party desperately hyping and protecting its one and only political life line, John Key.

But zombie parties do not die, they have to be killed and the question is who will do the killing? Vernon Small pointed out in today’s media that John Keys current position in the wake of Panama Papers (the usual Key safe, clean and neat statements) is effectively “handing a cudgel” to the opposition. But who will swing it? Who has the strength?

The Greens and NZ First most certainly have the will but not the strength to really kill National. Labour has the strength but is unable to get its house in order and remains timidly cowering in the corner (in the tradition of many classic horror movies) paralyzed with fear while the beast runs amok among other victims.

Possibly in combination could these three, like some sort of political transforming robot, combine their powers to take out National but that is unlikely (an issue to be explored at a later date) and the odds that come November 2017 we will either see John Key lead his party into a fourth term or a Coalition Government with Labour, NZ First and the Greens in uneasy coexistence are high.

If National is defeated in 2017 then it’s the end of Key, he won’t hang around and will go off to reap the rewards promised by his backers way back in 2002. If National makes a fourth term then all bets are off and Key will rule as long as his popularity lasts.

And that is the final key (no pun intended) to the puzzle, his popularity. As Phil F pointed out in the comments to my last post (and is echoed by the folks over at Redline Blog), a large section of the New Zealand electorate has been docile and passive in the face of the Machiavellian antics of Key and Co.

Voter apathy in the wake of endless scandals by the National party and John Key means that where acts which would have people out in the streets or at least an uproar in other countries have been met with large doses of indifference and ignorance, which are fuel for the polling engine that drives Team Key. Part of the blame lies with the mainstream media but the other with the general public themselves (again fodder for future posts) and it’s rapidly becomes a chicken or egg argument in determining which causes which.

So to end what has again been a long post (I do apologize for the length) it’s worth summing things up. National is a dead party walking as soon as it no longer has John key to prop it up (be it in person or popularity); it’s filled with corrupt individuals and backed by larger business interest for said interests. Its policy is a mild brand of conservatism, watered down to enable it to hold the middle ground and engineered in-line with failed and discredited Neo-liberal principles.

This is a party fighting a holding action to enable those who currently benefit from 30 years of rapacious public policy to consolidate their gains and maintain their lifestyles. The fact that National is literally rotting away before the nations eyes and lead by a necromancer king has yet to generate the fear and loathing that it should in this climate of change shows that we are either under Keys spell or things will remain as they are until history does the job for us and removes the horror for us.

In times like this a heroine or hero is required, or the peoples will must be manifest, both of which have their dangers but it’s clear that the beehive is now more akin to Dracula’s castle looming over the peasant village below and at nights dark and monstrous shapes can be seen  in the windows.

Kiss her you fool! Andrew Little, Labour and the TPPA

datePosted on 07:50, March 31st, 2016 by E.A.

Thanks to Pablo and the crew for letting me post here and apologies for the length. All opinions are entirely mine and my controllers. :)

Around Waitangi day this year it appeared if Labour had final nailed its colors to the mast in terms of where it stood with the TPPA by stating that it would not sign the TPPA if it were in government*. This was swiftly corrected the following day by Andrew Little stating that while Labour opposed several aspects of the deal it would not pull out of it.

Also at this time several Labour MPs (Phil Goff and David Shearer) broke ranks and came out in support of the TPPA. Goff was allowed to do this (under the pretext of his previously being trade minister) while Shearer was not and subsequently censured for his actions.

In the months leading up to Waitangi day as the TPPA furor built to a head and was then sideswiped by the flag debate both concerned members of the electorate and political press were wondering aloud where exactly the party stood in the issue. More than one commentator had pondered where Labour really lay on the issue and how its failure to make clear its position was hurting the party not to mention that it was losing a golden opportunity to get some traction in the polls on an issue which seemed well suited to a low polling party desperate to climb out of the opinion funk into which it had sunk.

To be fair, Labour and Little have clarified their position after Waitangi and made it clear that while Labour is the “party of free trade” they oppose the aspects of the TPPA which infringe on the sovereignty of the Government to make law in NZ without being beholden to offshore and corporate interests. Some of these had been echoed on the parties own website previously but a party website is hardly the forum to get the message out and its message in the public space on the issue had either been low key or just not getting any traction in the media due to statements lacking substance when compared to the rhetorical bedrock of the Greens and NZ first.

All of this makes sense in a spin doctor sort of way but there is an eerie disquiet around the party and its future in the face of the coming general election, its leadership issues, fall in standing in parliament, ongoing poor polling, the lingering stench of distrust that stretches all the way back to 1984 and the current inability of the party to clearly establish its position as the leader of the opposition.

To be clear, if National wins the 2017 election it will be the first time since Keith Holyoake that any party will govern for 12 years straight and at this time the election is Nationals to loose not Labours to win.

Despite the rising tides of sex toys, mud and vitriol being thrown and dumped on National MPs, John Key remains high in the polling as preferred Prime Minister and the party has based its electoral strategy on playing the PM personality card as strong as possible; going so far as to have Keys grinning mug on all electoral candidates billboards as if it was him and not the actual candidate that people were voting for, which of course was the strategy all along.

Nationals brain trust, despite its inability to stop living in the 90’s, was shrewd enough to realize that no one was going to vote for either the aging party hacks; which have infested the party like a persistent fungus and have dragged the party down time and again in various scandals and corrupt activities; or the flock of pimply faced geeks turgidly swollen with their own arrogance and self-importance without a clear and direct linkage to its one ace in the hole: John Key and his high polling popularity.

This has been Nationals game since Key took over in 2007 and is the only game the party now knows how to play. It’s been fantastically successful for both Key and the party and brought them back from the brink of political oblivion after the Brash Coup and religious/money infiltration in the early 2000s but its success is tied directly to Key’s popularity and the day his polling fails to make the nut is the day that the seat of power is up for grabs.

And this is the problem for both Little and Labour. It became clear after Helen Clark left for greener pastures that leadership in the Labour was not in abundance. As the cavalcade of neutered Clarkites came and went in succession before Little took the job clearly illustrated.

First in the wake of Helen there was the ever smiling Phil Goff, like some grinning Labour doppelganger to Nationals Lockwood Smith, Goff and his ever present smile led the party into the post Clark world and lost the 2011 election due both to his own inability to fight Key on popularity but also due to that ever present factor in New Zealand politics: third term arrogance. Labour after nine years in power had done what many third term governments do, simply forgotten how things work and acted like pompous douche bags (to be fair under Clark it was probably toe the line or get the cut and tuck but none the less) and their loss in 08 was echoed again in 2011.

Then the knives came out and in scenes familiar to those who were watching NZ politics in the late 80’s, the pretenders to the throne made their plays.

Next there was David Shearer, touted as Mr International he failed to make his mark on the electorate and his “sense” of his colleagues was ill judged as less than a year after getting the job the rumours were already swirling about leadership challenges and before he could celebrate the second anniversary of being in the role, and with an election approaching, he was deposed and another David stepped up.

Enter David Cunliffe, and then exit David Cunliffe. At no point was his position ever secured and his mark on the party was to lead it to a hideous beating at the polls in 2014. A beating that almost broke the party in the public’s eyes and gave both the Greens and NZ-First a shot of vitamins; making them more credible parties (by giving them room to grow) and helping to set up the Greens eventual usurping the role as moral leader of the opposition and Winston’s win in Northland (although it was Little’s age comment about Peters that seemed to really rile the electorate).

The key theme in all three of these “leaders” was the depressing air of abject impotence about them and all the reek of failure by men who truly know they are not worth the crown but will stake a claim none the less.

Then came Andrew Little, obviously hoping that the “three times a charm” magic of Clark would be bestowed upon him as it had her, after the dingbats antics of Palmer and Moore had been allowed to soil the top floor (and in Palmers case the balcony with his teenage saxophone solos) of the Beehive with their greedy dreams of power. Just as Shearer and Cunliffe had done their dash now it was time for the “real leader” to step up.

So the question that has yet to be answered is this. Is Little going to lead the party in the manner of Helen Clark or Norman Kirk or will he simper away and eventually be rolled by others with more ambition than him?

Up to this point; under Goff, Shearer and Cunliffe; Labour has tried to fight Key on his turf and at his game; ie personal popularity, the cult of personality and in the mold of US style leadership campaigning rather than promoting a broad social vision or attempting to energize the electorate, which were catalysts for both labour under Kirk and Lange.

And this is where the obtuse responses to things like the TPPA are going to hurt Labour. It’s not the issue itself in many cases that counts but a clear and unambiguous position to whatever the issue is which shows the party as a genuine party of the opposition and not a craven bunch of eunuchs waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before taking a position. In these areas NZ First and the Greens have consistently taken up the slack left but Labours tepidity by clearly stating their position on an issue.

In recent weeks there have been signs that someone has realized that ‘boring = stupid’, as the release of ‘10 big ideas’ about the future of work has shown. It’s not just a step in the right direction but an also indication that there is nothing to lose by floating out ideas, concepts or plans which are not just new and interesting but clearly in opposition to the staid, boring, innately conservative and business as usual approach that is the hallmark of the National government (in fact it’s all National knows but that’s a discussion for another time). Whoever is behind this approach clearly is not a victim of Clark’s neutering.

But is this Little’s doing? Is he behind this? In his time in the role, just over a year now, it’s clear that Andrew Little does not want to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors but it’s also clear that his current mode of politics is simply to play it safe, close the doors and wait for the Government to make a mistake, a wholly reactionary approach to politics and not one that is likely to endear itself to the electorate, nor one that will reap any serious dividends while the Teflon on Key is still in effect and the innately conservative approach of his party does not offer up many opportunities to strike. And even when opportunities have presented themselves (such as the TPPA, Serco, refugees or even things like the Canterbury Rebuild) Little has played it safe and stuck with comments which do little to give any indication that he would have done different or actually shows any passion on any issue.

In part this is because of the process by how Little came into the top job in the Labour party and how the cabal of professional politicians, which occupy much of the upper ranks of the party, don’t want him, never wanted him and would happily see him out and replaced by one of their own.

To start, the rise of Andrew Little to leader of the party came through the strange electoral mechanics of the Labour party itself (40% caucus, 40% party and 20% union). The close race between Andrew Little and Grant Robertson showed that when it came down to the wire it was the 20% of the union vote which gave Little the job and not any hearty support from those he sits in cabinet with.

Relics of the Clark years like Goff, Dyson, Mallard, Shearer, Cunliffe, Cosgrove, King and Parker show there is a core of hardened professional politicos who have less to do with representing their electorate and more with ensuring they remain in paid employment as their options outside the safe confines of politics are dim (for those thinking I’m picking on Labour here don’t worry National is in a worse state with its dead wood but again that’s for another day and they at least have the magic of John Key to keep them in their day jobs).

It’s safe to say that not all of these long term politicians are fans of Andrew Little in his role as leader, a fair few didn’t vote for him or want him there (Grant Robertson swept the caucus and the party votes in the leadership election and it was only the vote spread for the other candidates in the first round (Parker and Mahuta) and the 20% union vote which allowed Little to pull ahead in the second and third rounds).

And this is where it gets all Game of Thrones for Andrew Little, complete with incest, violence, sex and lashings of intrigue. He must fear the knives which are all glinting out there, just waiting for his exposed back, hidden behind friendly smiles and handshakes at the party meetings. It’s clear that this fear of making a mistake is part of the reason why he has spent the last year doing little to lead the party on the attack and plenty of time trying to consolidate his position. But again to go back to an earlier point; the coming election is Nationals to loose not Labours to win. Labour is going to need more than a spiffy training montage set to 80s synth rock to make the grade come the main event. Plucky underdog it is not!

In the short, gut based analysis of the situation it appears that Labour, like the current crop of republicans in the US, would rather harm its own chances of election rather than let “that Little bastard” have the job of PM. The only difference is Little is nowhere on Par with Trump.

But Andrew Little is also not Norman Kirk (an innately popular politician who lead Labour through two loosing elections as leader before winning the third on a combination of his own personal appeal but also by building the party up as the answer to a stagnant National under 12 years of Holyoake). Little’s popularity is low and the prospect of facing him off against a still popular Key is akin to throwing kangaroo meat into a lion enclosure. Nor does Little have the luxury of losing two elections before winning it in the third. The day after electoral defeat in 2017 is the day that he will start hearing more than one blade being sharpened.

Little can perform in the house but this is as far as any strategy of playing Key at his own game (that of popularity/personality) is going to work as in the general media he comes across as a concerned vaguely liberal uncle. Not a sandal wearing tree hugger but a quiet, responsible person who has never kicked out the jams in his entire life and who certainly would not mug for a selfie, pee in the shower or dislocate his jaw while deep throating a hot dog.

In fact while Andrew Little is certainly not a man in the mould of Norman Kirk he could take a leaf out of Kirks playbook in regards to how he and Labour won the 72 election. Kirk went in with a new platform, a new manifesto of change and better things ahead and swept the field, winning a margin of 23 seats and a mandate to make NZ anew. And this was after two previous losses to National in 69 and 66. The situation is not exactly the same but the parallels are significant.

Of course it is not so easy under MMP to pull off such a feat but the current state of Labour at this time shows no indication of even moving in this direction (its 10 steps as the noted exception). Perhaps there is a grand strategy hidden away behind closed doors, just waiting for the right moment to put it into operation. If so then it could be a long wait as politics, like romance favours the bold, not the plodding and the mood of the NZ electorate is like that of a crowd watching a romantic comedy where the male lead can’t get up the nerve to make the first move and the audience is yelling “Kiss her you fool!”.

That’s right, like having kids, there is no special time to do it and Andrew Little has a fair few seeds to sow between now and November 2017. Labour will not take any future election alone unless there is some firebrand, walking talking Jesus figure hiding away who can better Key in the selfie mugging, showering peeing and hot dog fellatio stakes (in fact the only current contender in this area for the golden hot dog would be Winston Peters, but Peters would never stoop to going down on a processed meat product). This means that while it’s not simply enough to roll out a new plan for NZ Labour also must get the Greens and NZ First to buy in as well (or more likely accept some of their policy ideas into their own intellectual portfolio).

So while the TPPA remains a missed opportunity and the flag debate is done and dusted there is still time for Little and Labour to step up their game and take it to the hoop. If they don’t Key will rule for 12 years as PM, the lizard people will finally take over and Labour may as well just give up the ghost.

Labour can’t fight Key in the personality stakes and can’t remain inert and neutral in the face of Keys capture of the middle voter NZ (all 37% of them). As I have said before now is the time for Hail Mary’s and wild new ideas. If Little has looked at the mood of many western states across the globe he may have noticed the polarization of voters and the rise of those promising a change to the squalid BS of the established order.

While Andrew Little is no Jeremy Corbin or Bernie Sanders he doesn’t have to be to win over NZ. What he needs are some new ideas, some new faces, the courage to take the issues to the electorate and the humility to not treat the required coalition partners like serfs under a feudal lord (as Labour has been known to do). Labour may lose come 2017 but they certainly won’t win playing their current style.

 

Notes:

1)       I swear I saw this article come up online on Waitangi Weekend but subsequent searches have failed to locate it since, it could have been an overeager journalist but the fact that it was followed a day later about Labours party retreat and Little allowing Goff to walk on the issue seems to me that it was something said in haste and then rapidly backed away from.

I have had a professional interest in torture since my days doing human rights work in Latin America. As part of that work I talked to victims as well as perpetrators of state terrorism and subsequently wrote professionally about its usage in Argentina. Later on I consorted with members of the US counter-intelligence community who were responsible for interrogations of suspected spies and other bad people. They helped me understand the difference between coercive (as opposed to passive or sympathetic) interrogations and torture. The combination of experiences made clear to me that torture is more about punishment and collective deterrence through fear than it is about timely and sensitive information-gathering.

When the US started using its “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11, descending into the medieval weirdness of Abu Ghraib and camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, I tried to make sense of it.

In recent years the US Congress and the CIA have conducted investigations into the enhanced interrogation program. The bottom line is twofold: enhanced interrogations did not work any better than “normal” interrogations in extracting valuable information from terrorism suspects; and the justifications for using them was specious and deceptive at best. The best way of garnering valuable intelligence, as it turns out, is through a combination of timely signals collections working in concert with old fashion human intelligence gathering on the ground.

Now along comes Donald Trump claiming that not only does torture work but that he would “do worse” to suspects than water boarding in order to extract information from them. By now it should be clear that he is a blithering idiot on foreign relations, military affairs, intelligence operations, and pretty much everything else when it comes to public policy, to say nothing of being a serial liar with the purest case of narcissistic personality disorder seen since Narcissus himself (and were it that he could only suffer the same fate).

Heck, he makes Al Gore’s claim about inventing the internet look like a child’s fib in comparison!

In any event, Trump is dangerously wrong.

In an interview with a NZ business publication, this is what I had to say bout Trump’s remarks.

Media Link: Brussels’ heart of darkness.

datePosted on 19:56, March 23rd, 2016 by Pablo

I wrote a short opinion piece in the Herald outlining some of my thoughts about the Brussels terrorist attacks. Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, there will be no end to them. Even if they overlap in the form of foreign fighters, those root causes primarily reside in the disaffection and alienation produced by socio-economic and cultural grievances at home rather than in the conflicts of the Middle East. The solution is to be proactive as well as reactive to the threat posed by domestic radicalisation, and that involves social reform as well as better human intelligence collection in the communities from which home-grown jihadists emerge.

Something Fundamentally Wrong.

datePosted on 14:36, March 18th, 2016 by Pablo

In last Monday’s press briefing, the Prime Minister took my name in vain. Responding to questions from a reporter I had talked to, he said that my concerns about the apparent illegality of undercover intelligence operations were “fundamentally wrong.” Instead, he said that although intelligence agencies could not break laws (tell that to Kim Dotcom), they might require “different laws.”

I beg to differ.

Before delving deeper, let’s address the PM’s remark about the need for “different laws” governing undercover intelligence operations. What does he mean by “different?” Is he proposing that there be one set of laws for regular citizens and another set of laws governing undercover intelligence work? How does that sit with the “equal rights under the law” premise that is at the heart of democratic jurisprudence? And if there is no provision for “different laws” governing undercover intelligence operations today, then what is there in extant law that makes otherwise illegal acts legal? How often and under what circumstances are these illegal-but-legal acts allowed and are they only allowed or legal under warrant? Something tells me that the answers to the last two questions are “frequently and routine” and “no” respectively.

The question about undercover intelligence operations was raised because during the course of conversations with a couple of reporters about the Intelligence Review in general, I pointed out that the most interesting items were buried at the back of the report. Reporters tend to read the executive summaries of official government documents but seldom have the time or inclination to read through 179 pages of dense prose and legal jargon.

But since I have the time and inclination, I did. Plus, in my former life as a US government official I actually helped draft such reports so know that the best way of reading them is from back to front. That way one can get to the meat of the report, often found in annexes, before wading through the fluff.

I should point out that my overall take on the report is this: given who was on the Review committee, the report was inevitably going to have a bias towards institutional continuity and incrementalism with regard to reforms. That is indeed what happened. The report reflects as much if not more of the spy agencies’ concerns than it does that of external parties or stakeholders like the civil society organisations and individuals that were consulted by the Committee. The result is bound to be disappointing to those who wanted a major overhaul of the intelligence community or wanted parts of it disbanded altogether, such as the Greens, but to my mind it is a small but acceptable step towards greater transparency and accountability in the NZ intelligence community and its main collection agencies, the GCSB and SIS.

Even so, there are several problematic areas in the report that are worth considering, and here I will focus on the undercover operations that the PM thinks I have interpreted so fundamentally wrong. Rather than present my views without context, here are (cut and pasted) the recommendations regarding undercover operations as listed in the Report:

163 Annex C: Full list of recommendations (abridged).

Cover for operations and employees

78.The legislation should explicitly provide for the Agencies to obtain, create and use any identification information necessary for the purpose of maintaining the secret nature of their authorised activities. This should include the ability to create cover for anyone authorised to undertake activity for the Agencies.

79. “Identity information” should include anything that could be used to establish identity – such as credit cards and shell companies in additional to traditional forms of identification (such as passports and driver licences).

80. The Agencies should also have the ability to obtain, create and use identification information necessary to keep the identity of their employees confidential.

81. The use of these powers should be covered by a tier 3 authorisation (policy statement) to ensure they are exercised only where necessary and proportionate.

82. There should be corresponding immunities from civil and criminal liability for reasonable acts done in good faith to create or maintain cover as part of an authorised operation or to keep the fact of a person’s employment with the NZSIS or GCSB secret.

Immunities.

83. These powers and immunities should be incorporated through general provisions in the legislation governing the Agencies, rather than by inserting specific exceptions in other legislation as is currently the case.

84. The same immunities should apply to both agencies, in line with our recommendations that the Agencies share functions and an authorisation regime.

85. Immunities should also apply to anyone required to assist the Agencies, such as telecommunications companies, or to human sources or agents acting at the Agencies’ request or direction.

86. The legislation should provide that no person should be subject to criminal liability for acts carried out in good faith and in a reasonable manner that are necessary to give effect to a tier 1 or tier 2 authorisation.

87. Employees of the Agencies should also have immunity from criminal liability for acts carried out in good faith, in a reasonable manner and in accordance with the purposes of the Act to obtain a tier 1 or tier 2 authorisation.

88. The immunities for employees of the Agencies should also extend to any relevant minor offences or infringements that may need to be committed in the course of investigations carried out under a tier 3 authorisation (such as breaches of road user rules).

89. Employees of the Agencies and any person acting at the request or direction of the Agencies should be protected from civil liability for acts or omissions in good faith in the pursuance or intended pursuance of the Agencies’ duties, functions or powers. This is the same protection as is provided to public sector employees under the State Sector Act 1988.

90. Where the GCSB or NZSIS is assisting another agency to perform its functions, any immunities that apply to the agency being assisted should also apply to the GCSB and/or NZSIS.

 

Readers can form their own conclusions about what these recommendations imply. But here are some thoughts. It appears that undercover operations conducted by the SIS (and to a lesser extent the GCSB) do not have specific legal cover as things currently stand. There are no provisions in the SIS or GCSB Acts that explicitly refer to a legal framework under which otherwise criminal acts undertaken by undercover intelligence agents may occur. That means, in effect, that until now undercover intelligence operations are essentially illegal except for the fact that they are conducted by agents of the State at its behest under exceptions to existing legislation (outside of the GCSB and SIS Acts or even the State Sector Act). But even then there is apparently nothing in the law that explicitly authorises undercover intelligence operations that otherwise would be criminal acts (say, burglary, forgery or credit fraud). Yet the recommendations speak directly to such acts so clearly they have been happening.

The problem is not just that SIS agents have no specific legal cover for what they do covertly, something that individually places them at considerable risk in the event that they are caught or detected. There also are no specific provisions on what they cannot do. Where is the line drawn as to what is permissible when acting as an undercover agent of the State. Murder? Arson? Extortion? Blackmail? Kidnapping? Credit card fraud? Money laundering? Burglary? Home invasions? Tail-gating? (I include this because recommendation 88 specifically mentions breaches of road user rules). If an agent is recklessly tail-gating a surveillance target and wrecks while doing so, killing or injuring passerby, is that agent immune from prosecution or liability because s/he was in the service of the State?

These questions are not frivolous. From my personal experience, I know that among other things covert or undercover agents are taught how to pick locks and conduct “traceless” break-ins and burglaries (they are even provided with the tools to do so). Cyber-hacking to install malware or to steal sensitive information is a stock in trade of signals intelligence agencies. Clandestine surveillance of all sorts is the bread and butter of most human intelligence agencies. The CIA has its own lethal drone program and paramilitary branch, as do several other spy agencies. The Mossad is, among many other things, a brutally efficient assassination machine. So where does one draw the line when it comes to otherwise criminal acts carried out by intelligence agents of the NZ state?

The recommendations repeatedly speak about acting in “good faith.” But how is “good faith” defined? The SIS agents who broke into activist Aziz Chowdry’s home in 1996 were probably acting in “good faith” when they committed what otherwise would be a crime, but how is it that stealing documents from activists is justified on national security grounds? Moreover, the person who caught the SIS agents in the act of breaking and entering, David Small, had his home raided, ostensibly to search for bomb-making materials, by the Police a week later, after making the initial complaint (he was able to record the SIS get away car’s registration plate number, which was traced back to an SIS front company). How was the raid on Dr. Small done in “good faith” and at whose behest? The government was eventually forced to settle with Mr. Chowdry for a six figure amount and, worse yet, forced to apologise to him for the break in (you can read a summary of the case here).

Dr. Small also received compensation for “unreasonable search.” If we accept that an apology implies recognition of wrong doing and that “unreasonable searches” may be part of the SIS repertoire, then how and where does “good faith” come into the picture? Add to that events such as SIS break-ins at Auckland University in the late 1990s (if I am not mistaken Jane Kelsey’s office was a target), and one gets the idea that the SIS engages in otherwise illegal acts not so much for national security reasons but because it simply can under a de facto “good faith” immunity clause. So the effect of the current recommendations would be to codify what is already informal usage and practice.

The issue of “good faith” extends beyond New Zealand’s borders. Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn is currently investigating whether the SIS was complicit in the CIA extraordinary rendition and black site program. For those unaware of these, the program involved kidnapping or detaining suspected Islamic extremists and “rendering” them to clandestine detention centres in a number of countries (Poland, Thailand and Egypt, among others). There they were subject to euphemistically labeled “enhanced” interrogation techniques (some of which are more properly classified as torture). Although some of those “rendered” by this program turned up in Guantanamo Bay or in prisons operated by US allies, many others have never been seen again. All of this was conducted off the books and outside of legal guarantees or protections for the detainees.

Assuming that Ms. Gwyn does find that in fact the SIS knew about or was complicit in the extraordinary rendition/black site program in contravention of NZ commitments to international conventions against torture and arbitrary detention, can the SIS turn around and claim that it was doing so in “good faith?” Is “good faith” nothing more than a get out of jail card for the intelligence services?

The bottom line is two-fold. First, undercover intelligence operations to date have been conducted under very porous and somewhat dubious legal cover that allows a multitude of operational sins to occur under what seems to be a wink and nod agreement with other agencies such as the police and Crown.

Secondly, the recommendations in the report about legal cover for undercover intelligence operations are very vague and broad, which allows the possibility for agents to go “rogue” so long as they can claim that they are acting in “good faith.” Neither is acceptable in a liberal democracy.

I agree that a comprehensive legal framework is needed governing the circumstances and permissible activities conducted during undercover intelligence operations. But this framework has to specify as much what is not permissible as what is, and has to ensure clear lines of responsibility as well as authorisation before and during the conduct of said operations. Otherwise we run the risk of allowing State-sanctioned criminal enterprise to masquerade as intelligence gathering.

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