Archive for ‘Parliament’ Category
A while back I wrote a post arguing that the NZ Left was in serious disarray. Various Left pontificators fulminated from the depths of their revolutionary armchairs against my views, denouncing me for being defeatist. I responded as politely as I could.
Last night conservative, ring wing parties won nearly 64 percent of the popular vote. Left wing parties–such as they are given Labour’s pro-capitalist bent, the Green’s turn to the middle and Internet/Mana’s schizophrenic leanings–mustered 36 percent of the vote. The message is clear: New Zealand is a right-leaning country. Nearly 30 years of pro-market policy (an entire generation’s worth) has resulted in a country that no longer considers egalitarian and redistributive principles as hallmarks of the national identity. Instead, the turn to self-interest has seeped deeply into the social fabric.
That is the context in which the NZ Left must operate. That is the context that I was writing about in my earlier postings. And that is the context that we will have for the foreseeable future unless the Left learns to shift the terms of the political debate off of tax cuts, deficits, public spending, workforce flexibility and other pro-market arguments. So far it has not done so and in fact has often tried to operate within the context and political debate as given. Perhaps last night’s drubbing will make the Left realise that this is a mistake.
After all, those who define the terms of the debate are those who win.
In order for the Left to re-define the terms of political debate in NZ there has to be a plausible counter-argument that can compete with the language of austerity, limited government, non-interference and self-interested maximising of opportunities. This election campaign demonstrated that concerns about civil liberties, privacy, child poverty, environmental degradation, corporate welfare, predatory trade and other progressive cornerstones took a back seat to economic stability as defined by market ideologues.
Given that fact, the process of re-definition has to start there: basic definition of economic stability. One way to do so if to move off of the usual market analytics favoured by bankers and corporates and onto the social costs of an increasingly unequal division of labour. Because the price for market stability is seen in a host of variables that are not amenable to standard market analysis, yet which are as real as the glue sniffing starved kid living rough and begging for change on the increasingly mean streets of Godzone.
During the 25 years I was in academia I wrote a fair bit on the subjects of democracy and democratisation, both in theory and in practice. I continued in that vein in some of my blogging on this site, including the 5 part series on deconstructing democracy in 2009. As part of my ruminations, I have delved from time to time into the subject of democratic accountability, specifically its vertical and horizontal dimensions, both of which are absolute requirements for the health of liberal democracy. Among other things and contrary to what some pundits might say, my understanding of the two dimensions of democratic accountability is what allows me to state categorically that dirty politics such as that practiced by the National Party’s vicious wing is not inherent to democracy
Vertical accountability refers to the accountability of the governors to the governed. The signal feature of this dimension are elections of those who govern, but also include the ability of the electorate to demand review, recall or sanction of non-elected officials such as those in the judiciary and civil service if and when their actions become to egregious or are ignored by the other branches of government. There a variety of methods with which to do so, but that requires a degree of horizontal accountability as well. In any event vertical accountability is aided by a robust, critical and independent media that draws public attention to what otherwise might be quiet indiscretions by those in office.
Here is where horizontal accountability comes in. Each branch of government is formally accountable to the others. In the event of malfeasance in one branch the other branches have a right and indeed duty to independently investigate any potential wrong doing. They must maintain a degree of institutional autonomy in order to do so, because otherwise they cannot exercise the degree of inquisitorial independence that is required for transparency and integrity to obtain.
It is this dimension where New Zealand appears deficient, and the proof of that is the inquiry that the Prime Minister has ordered into Judith Collins use of a public servant’s personal information. In this case the PM gets to frame the terms of reference of the inquiry, and has done so in way that assures that Collins will be exonerated. In political circles this might be called narrowing the focus to what is strictly illegal, but in common parlance it is known as acceptable corruption.
The inquiry conducted by the Inspector-General of the SIS into the hasty OIA release of sensitive SIS documents to a blogger linked to the government is more independent and therefore more transparent and honest, assuming that the IG does her job correctly.
But the problem remains that horizontal accountability in NZ is nowhere what it should be. Parliamentary committees are dominated by the government and often have limited inquisitorial powers. Crown Law has, time and time again, adjusted its prosecution priorities to accord more closely with government interests (recall the time and cost of the Zaoui and Urewera prosecutions, both of which ultimately reduced to far less than the government initially alleged). Some judges are said to lean politically one way or another when it comes to examining government behaviour.
Less we think that this overly friendly relationship between government and prosecutors be exclusive to National, let’s remember that the two prosecutions cited above began (and in Zaoui’s case ended) under the 5th Labour government.
Some say that the lack of a written constitution impedes the full exercise of horizontal accountability in NZ. Perhaps that is so but I also think that it is a product of habitual practice in a small country, where the political elites are for the most part a relatively small club that play by their own informal rules as much as they do by the law. Those in government are given fairly broad license when it comes to how they account for their actions to the other branches. Those in opposition wait for their turn in office to do the same. The judiciary and public bureaucracy publicly maintain their independence but at a senior level they play close attention to the interests of the government of the day.
Voters give a veneer of vertical accountability to the status quo by turning out for elections. Their susceptibility to spin and deflection makes them targets of the dirtier machinations of politicians, and in the absence of genuine horizontal accountability counter-weights that is all that is needed to govern. In such a context governance is all about bread and circus, or in the NZ case, pies and rugby. The fact that National has not suffered much in pre-election polling pretty much confirms this truth.
It can be argued that this is politics as usual, in the form of one hand washing the other in the interest of political stability. Indeed, all of this is perfectly acceptable, except that it is also perfectly, albeit not by legal definition, corrupt. But what is wrong with a little acceptable corruption amongst political friends so long as the public does not care and there are no real institutional checks on what they do so long as they do it quietly?
I could be wrong on this and John Key is just being a jerk when it comes to the terms of the Collins inquiry. But something tells me that the rot runs much deeper, and it will not stop should he and his nasty pack of party colleagues be voted out of office later this month.
I came back from six weeks abroad to see the beginning of the Internet Party’s “Party party” launches. It leaves me with some questions.
It seems that what the Internet Party has done is this. Using Kim Dotcom’s wallet as a springboard, it has selected a candidate group largely made up of attractive metrosexuals (only a few of whom have political experience), recruited as window dressing a seasoned (and also attractive) leftist female as party leader (even though she has no experience in the IT field), and run a slick PR campaign featuring cats that is long on rhetoric and promises and short on viable policies. The stated aim is to get out the apathetic youth vote and thereby reach the three percent electoral threshold.
The strategic alliance with the Mana Party makes sense, especially for Mana. They get additional resources to more effectively campaign for at least two electorate seats, especially given that it looks like the Maori Party is moribund and the Maori electoral roll will be more contestable even if Labour tries to reclaim its historical support in it. The Internet Party gets to coattail on Mana’s activism and the presence of relatively seasoned cadres on the campaign trail. Between the two, they might well reach the five percent threshold, although current polling suggests something well less than that. The lack of political experience in the Internet Party could be problematic in any event.
But I am still left wondering what the IP stands for and how it proposes to effect change if its candidates are elected. We know that the IP came about mostly due to Dotcom’s hatred of John Key. But Dotcom is ostensibly not part of the IP, which makes his attention-grabbing presence at its public events all the more puzzling. Leaving aside Dotcom’s background and baggage for the moment, imagine if major financial donors stole the stage at Labour, National or Green Party rallies. What would the reaction be? Plus, hating on John Key is not a policy platform, however much the sentiment may be shared by a good portion of the general public (and that is debatable).
Giving free internet access to all seems nice, but how and who is going to pay for that? Wanting to repeal the 2013 GCSB Act and withdraw from the 5 Eyes intelligence network sounds interesting, but how would that happen and has a cost/benefits analysis been run on doing so? Likewise, opposition to the TPP seems sensible, but what is its position on trade in general? The policies on the environment and education seem laudable (and look to be very close to those of the Greens), and it is good to make a stand on privacy issues and NZ independence, but is that enough to present to voters?
More broadly, where does IP stand on early childhood education, pensions, occupational health and safety, immigration, transportation infrastructure, diplomatic alignment, defense spending or a myriad of other policy issues? Is it anything more than a protest party? Nothing I have seen in its policy platform indicates a comprehensive, well thought roadmap to a better future. In fact, some of the policy statements are surprisingly shallow and in some cases backed with citations from blogs and newspapers rather than legitimate research outlets.
Is having attractive candidates, catchy slogans and a narrow policy focus enough for IP to be a legitimate political contender?
I have read what its champions claim it to be, and have read what its detractors say it is. I am personally familiar with two IP candidates and have found them to be earnest people of integrity and conviction who want more than a narrow vendetta-driven agenda opportunistically married to an indigenous socialist movement. I would, in fact, love to see it succeed because I think that the political Left in NZ needs more varied forms of representation in parliament than currently available.
So my question to readers is simple: is the IP a viable and durable option in the NZ political landscape, or is it doomed to fail?
One thing is certain. If dark rumours are correct, the government has some unpleasant surprises for the IP in the weeks leading to the election. If that happens, it may take more than Glenn Greenwald and his revelations about John Key and the GCSB to redeem the IP in the eyes of the voting public. I would hope that both Dotcom and his IP candidates are acutely aware of what could be in store for them should the rumours prove true, and plan accordingly.
In the previous two posts I’ve covered the strategic rationales behind the Internet MANA alliance, and how, even if they spend their money very inefficiently, they are still very likely to gain a stronger presence in Parliament. But what does success actually look like for Internet MANA?
This is a complex question to answer because Internet MANA, for all its potential, is a mess of vanity projects existing in a state of ideological and pragmatic tension. But tensions all resolve sooner or later.
Kim Dotcom: Disruption (a change of government, or 10%)
To get his extradition case thrown out, Kim Dotcom needs to change the government, and prevail upon an incoming Minister of Justice that he and his party are great assets to that government.
The likelihood of this is slim, because he has already antagonised Labour, and because the leader of his own party has insisted she will not be led on the matter. Other members of the radical left groups aligned with the party are probably supportive of his ideological aim here, if only due to generalised anti-authoritarianism and anti-Americanism. And the other branch of Kim Dotcom’s game is fame, or notoriety, and if he can put his disruption engine in parliament, he will gain that, and it may provide him strategic cover for other manoeuvres regardless of who is in government.
The other way it could happen is if Internet MANA shocks everyone and polls very high — say, 10% — which would ruin almost everyone’s coalition plans. This is also extremely unlikely, but clearly it is Kim Dotcom’s hope, and it would be the purest sort of success for everyone involved.
Laila Harré: A launch (5%+) or a lifeboat (3%)
There’s a quirk here: Te Mana gets list places 1,3 and 4; Internet Party 2, 5 and 6, after which they alternate. So if they win five seats or fewer, Te Mana MPs will outnumber the Internet Party’s. If they win six or more seats, the numbers are more or less even. This provides a strong incentive for the Internet Party to perform, and also suggests shrewd negotiation by Te Mana.
In the event that the Internet Party bring Harré only into parliament (four seats or fewer), or if Kim Dotcom withdraws his cash and the party structure is no longer found to be self-sustaining, it seems very likely that Harré would join Te Mana formally. While her history in parties of this sort is its own guide, I suspect they would welcome her and it would be a fruitful arrangement: a win, of sorts, both for her and Te Mana.
The Internet Party: A future (7%)
Te Mana and Hone Harawira: The only way is up
The Left: It’s complicated
There remains the slight possibility that they will bring enough MPs into parliament to make a chaotic and unholy alliance of the left a just slightly less-bad alternative to the Golden Age of John Key. As an aside: the better the Greens do, the better for Internet MANA post-election; and if nothing else they should hopefully form a strong ideological and generational counterpoint to New Zealand First, which I fear starts to fancy itself as the UKIP of the South Seas.
Aotearoa as a whole
Phil Sage in comments to my previous post about Internet MANA observes that “The question is whether Kim Dotcom’s money will translate into poll support and votes.” I have no knowledge of what’s going on inside the Internet MANA HQ bar what’s been reported in the media, but those reports indicate a large full-time campaign staff, and that will burn a large share of the money. Matthew Hooton was on the wireless yesterday scorning this approach and saying the money will be pumped into glossy brochures and Internet ads nobody will watch. Which might be fair enough.
But wait, we actually have some data! Each election, David Farrar helpfully puts together a breakdown of party votes won versus dollars spent (CPV). The 2008 and 2011 tables were stolen from DPF, with thanks.
In 2011, almost all parties spent less than $5 per vote — exceptions were the Conservatives ($32), ACT ($26) and Social Credit ($20).
In 2008 the expenditure was higher and the field more spread, probably because the result was less certain and the stakes higher. (EDIT: Also, it appears the broadcast allocation was not included in the 2011 figures). The two main parties again spent less than $5, most others spent $10-15, and there were two outliers — RAM ($49) and Social Credit ($55).
Internet MANA in 2014
The first point here is that high polling tends to correlate with low CPV. Incumbency and brand value count for a great deal. So it is unlikely that any new party would be able to achieve good CPV by any means. To match the major parties Internet MANA would need to poll 25%, in which scenario Labour would effectively cease to exist. Even though that’s only a little over half of the “missing million”, it’s not happening.
My guess in the post was that Internet MANA would get 2-3% for $3 million. That would mean per-vote spending of around $50, far higher than any of the parties in 2011, on a par with the unelectable outliers in 2008. I still think that’s the most likely outcome.
If they tank and gain only what the combined Internet and Mana parties are polling now (1-1.5%) they would have outspent 2011′s most profligate parties by a factor of three in terms of CPV. This has to be the worst conceivable outcome for Internet MANA, and even so, it very probably yields them a second MP, assuming either Hone Harawira or Annette Sykes wins their seat. Anything more than this is gravy. Te Mana teaming up with Kim Dotcom is, at least tactically, a no-lose situation.
If they match 2011 CPV outliers the Conservatives, they would need to pull at least 100,000 votes — a tenth of their missing million — which would yield 5-7 MPs and make them a force to be reckoned with between now and 2017, giving them a platform to profoundly disrupt the plans of every other party in NZ politics. It’s unlikely, but with this sort of money, it’s not impossible.
UPDATE: Andrew Geddis points out in comments that I’ve failed to account for the electoral spending limit, which prevents Internet MANA from blowing the whole $3 million on declarable election expenses, which is what the cited 2008 and 2011 numbers cover. The expenditure limit is $25,700 for a constituency candidate and $1,091,000 for a registered political party plus $25,700 per electorate contested by the party.
So all the CPV figures in that last table are about double what they will be in reality, which means the premise and conclusions of this post are rather weaker than they seemed.
So Herman Melville described the crew of the Pequod. While it probably seems tendentious to equate them to the Internet MANA party, that seems to be how Kim Dotcom, at least, regards himself — as Captain Ahab, nailing his doubloon to the mast and urging them to seek the destruction of his Prime Ministerial Moby-Dick. But in spite of the many failings he, or Ishmael, attributed to them, that crew were good people, enormously effective, and very nearly successful in their hopeless task of hunting a single whale across all the oceans of the world.
In spite of Dotcom’s megalomania, Key — unlike the white whale — just doesn’t care that much. But in any case, the hauling-together of two unlikely vessels that form the Internet MANA alliance is more interesting than one rich eccentric’s personal grudge, or his attempts to avoid extradition.
The conventional reading of Internet MANA — even among some on the left — is that Kim Dotcom has colonised the Mana movement, buying himself a tame savage who’ll do his dirty work for him. But I don’t think so: I think the Internet Party is trying to bite off more than it can chew.
The Mana movement has always been about those outside the political mainstream. Even while he was forced into collaboration, Hone Harawira was plain about his radicalism. His legacy — barring some major change — is unlikely to be that period, or Te Mana, but the previous three decades of dogged activism in service of his people. One of these was his role in the haka party incident which demonstrated — or rather, reiterated after a long hiatus — to Pākehā New Zealand that Māori were’t going to take it.
Even so, if it were just Harawira this colonisation line might be fair — he’s a tough and principled guy, but running a fringe party without a benefactor — in the form of an electoral liege, or a millionaire backer, or both — is hard going. (Ask Winston Peters.) But Harawira is not alone. Both Annette Sykes and John Minto have decades of unglamorous and largely unrewarded activism behind them, and enormous credibility. Not among the National and Labour-voting public, but in radical and Māori circles, where it counts for their purposes. There is clearly some division — Sue Bradford quit the party, prompting a rush of right-wingers who have for decades said the most vile things about her to praise her integrity. But all in all, few people who know them believe that all of Harawira, Minto, and Sykes can be bought, in one go.
To which add Laila Harré. Many people have written that her appointment as leader of the Internet Party brings it credibility, and I agree. It is a brave, or reckless, appointment from Kim Dotcom’s perspective, because Harré is bigger than he is and, if elected, will influence the party more by leading it than he will by funding it — especially when his largesse runs out, as it inevitably will. Her parliamentary achievements have been limited because of her commitment to activism, but her record outside parliament has been more significant. She has demonstrated she can’t be bought, and is willing to hold her own line and walk away from a bad political situation, even when the stakes are very high.
What’s cleverest about this alliance is how neatly it separates ends and means. Morgan Godfery has argued persuasively that the alliance is a deeply conventional bit of strategy and an obvious next-step, from a Māori nationalist perspective, both mainstream and nationalist-insurgent political vehicles for Tino Rangatiratanga having been thoroughly co-opted by mainstream (white) imperatives. I would say further that it indicates a strategic maturity we have not yet seen from Māori parliamentary parties, and an elaboration of the māori party’s strategy of pragmatic coupling, though this time, to a vehicle it can more readily control. At least in this case, the Internet Party’s agenda is clear.
The two parties seem incongruous, and they are — but what they have in common is a claim to stand for those who feel like mainstream politics doesn’t speak for them, or listen to them. Both parties have links to the Occupy movement, and the policy platforms are pitched at groups with some core interests in common: those who are (or feel) criminalised or oppressed by the mainstream, and who wish to disrupt it. These include tech-libertarians and utopian futurists, internet “pirates” and disaffected geeks, anti-GCSB and TPPA activists, land rights and Māori sovereignty activists, actual socialists (as opposed to the Labour kind), the very poor and economically marginalised (especially rural, Māori), marijuana smokers, and a more fringey element of anti-Fluoride campaigners and other assorted cranks and conspiracists. In aggregate it seems clear that these people comprise more than 5% of the electorate — if only you can get them to vote. And that’s what Kim Dotcom’s millions are for: not so much to persuade them of a single, coherent policy platform, but to fly a radical banner to which the disruptors can flock. For this purpose they need not be all of one kind.
Te Mana has its own marginal voters, which comprise less than 1% of the electorate, and because of the difficulty of persuading it seems unlikely the Internet Party will mobilise much more. But a party vote total of 1.5% should see a second MP, and anything much above 2% should see a third, and this does not seem totally implausible. Even if these are “new” voters — not drawn from Labour or Greens — this probably comes at cost to the wider left if mainstream swing-voters are scared from Labour to National by the prospect of a left coalition including Internet MANA, as Danyl and Russell Brown have suggested. It might well be that the success of Internet MANA weakens Labour’s prospects, but it seems to have little chance of victory anyway, and has declared against Internet MANA, so a robust challenge from the left — as well as the one it has had from John Key on the right — is probably a good thing in the long term. What cares Mana for the neoliberal Pākehā Labour party’s fortunes?
Paradoxically, the addition of Internet Party voters would give Mana voters a stronger chance at locking the Internet party — and Harré — out if they are suspicious of Kim Dotcom’s influence. Harawira is facing a strong challenge in Te Tai Tokerau, but Waiariki is also close. If Labour, Green or Māori party voters tactically support Annette Sykes, hers could be the anchor seat. In this case, the second MP (whether he wins Te Tai Tokerau or not) would be Hone Harawira, with Harré third. Given that two or three MPs seems much more plausible than four or five, the most likely outcome seems to be that Te Mana is no worse off, possibly better off, and has a chance to swap Sue Bradford for the much more politically-viable Laila Harré. It looks less like the Internet Party colonising the Mana movement than the opposite.
On May 20, 2014 from 6PM-7:30PM Diplosphere is hosting a panel discussion titled “Drone Strikes: Are They in New Zealand’s Interest?” The event will be hosted by Dr. Kennedy Graham MP-Green Party and will take place at the Theatrette, Parliament Buildings, Wellington. The hosts ask that people register for the event, which they can do by contacting Maty Nikkhou-O’Brien at the following email address: email@example.com
The panel Chair is Dr. Roderick Alley of Victoria University, who has just published a thorough examination of drone warfare. The panelists are Professor Richard Jackson of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago, investigative journalist Nicky Hager and myself.
It should be an interesting discussion. I will try to place the emergence of drone warfare in context before debating its legality and utility.
Maurice Williamson is forced to resign as Minister because he made a phone call to the police asking them to be undertake a thorough review and be “on solid ground” when investigating a domestic violence incident involving a wealthy Chinese friend of his who invested a lot of money in New Zealand (the same Chinese fellow granted citizenship over the objections of immigration authorities, and who donated more than NZ$ 20 thousand to National in 2012).
Judith Collins retains her ministerial portfolios in spite of revelations that she interceded with Chinese officials on behalf of her husband’s export company while on an official visit to China that had nothing to do with exports or trade.
What is similar and what is different about the two cases? They are similar in that they both involve Chinese nationals with economic ties to the National party or entities linked to it. They are similar in that the ministerial interventions were in violation of the cabinet manual regarding conflicts of interest. They also represent obvious forms of political influence peddling.
How are they different? Collins is a a key player on National’s front bench, whereas Williamson is on the outers with National’s heavy hitters. Thus he is expendable while she is not.
Comparatively speaking, Williamson’s crime was arguably less than that of Collins. He made a call on behalf of a constituent urging Police diligence when investigating the charges against his friend, then left the matter at that. The fact that rather than tell the minister to buzz off the cops bent over backwards to satisfy him that they were on “solid ground” before prosecuting is a police issue, not a Williamson issue (the Police decided to prosecute in any event, with Mr. Liu eventually pleading guilty to two charges of domestic violence).
Collins used taxpayer funded official travel to take time out of her official schedule to divert and meet with Chinese business associates of her husband over dinner in the presence of an unnamed Chinese government official at a time when her husband’s business interests in China were being hindered by official reviews of New Zealand based export contracts. Although she had no real business being there, she brought an aide with her, adding to the impression that her presence at that dinner had the stamp of official approval.
Of the two, which is more obviously a conflict of interest and which has the clear stench of corruption wafting over it? Of the two, which one would be viewed more dimly by the likes of Transparency International (the anti-corruption agency that habitually lists NZ amongst the least corrupt countries to do business in)?
Hypocrisy much in the handling of the two cases by the Prime Minister? You be the judge, by I think that there is.
(Or: How the activist left learned to stop worrying and love identity politics.)
Here and elsewhere I spend much time railing against the notion that “identity” is somehow distinct from “politics”, or that “identity politics” is anathema to the idealised “real politics” of class and ideology. I don’t accept that those with politicised identities — in our context most often women, Māori and LGBTI people — ought to fall in behind the straight white able-bodied men of The Cause on the understanding that The Cause will lend its support to their subordinate issues when the time is right. Moreover, I don’t accept that a person’s politics can meaningfully be divorced from their identity. Identity is politics. I am far from alone in these views.
Recently it has come to my attention that many of those who claim to oppose “identity politics” are pretty happy with it too, given the right circumstances. The contest between Grant Robertson, Shane Jones and David Cunliffe provides a good example.
Right out of the gate the contest was framed in terms of identity — Grant Robertson’s sexual identity. “Is New Zealand Ready For A Gay Prime Minister?”, the headlines asked, proceeding then to draw dubious links between unscientific vox-pops and the reckons of sundry pundits, all of whom were terribly keen to assure us that they, personally, were ready, even if the country isn’t yet. But while Robertson’s identity is what it is, his campaign is not an identity politics campaign in any meaningful way. In this it differs sharply from the campaigns of the other two contenders.
But Jones’ Māoritanga isn’t the only identity pitch: he has made overt masculinity a part of his brand. When he came clean about charging pornographic movies to Parliamentary Services, his explanation was “I’m a red-blooded male”. He recently doubled down on this in relation to Labour’s proposed gender-equality measures, saying New Zealanders didn’t want “geldings” running the country, and that “it was blue-collar, tradie, blokey voters we were missing”. His value proposition for the Labour leadership is that he can expand the party’s electoral base into the archetypally-masculine realm of the “smoko room” where such voters are said to dwell. It seems likely that this strategy will alienate a good number of female voters into the bargain.
Cunliffe’s claim is his identity as a guy who greets his supporters in a dozen different languages and whose announcement of a candidacy is greeted with a waiata, wearing a lei like it ain’t no thing. He is a mutual-second-best candidate for a bunch of different identity groupings — he’s male, but he has strong caucus support from Labour women, including his previous running-mate Nanaia Mahuta and marriage equality champion Louisa Wall. He’s straight, but he’s not homophobic or chauvinistic about it. He’s Pākehā, but his multicultural bona fides are clear, and he has strong support from Māori and Pasifika caucus members. He studied at Harvard, but he’s the working-class son of an Anglican minister. He’s comparatively young — Generation X — but not so young as to be seen as a whipper-snapper by the Baby Boomers. Homo Sapiens Aotearoan is David Cunliffe’s identity; a modern native of the biggest Pacific city in the world.
And yet last night’s story by Brooke Sabin basically wrote Grant Robertson’s candidacy off on the basis of a series of ad-hoc buttonholes with workers at a union rally who apparently didn’t like that he was gay. Sabin reported that only two of the 40 people spoken to would support Robertson, and in the studio introduction to the piece anchor Hilary Barry inflated this to:
There are a swag of problems here: most obviously that repeatedly and urgently raising the issue (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) sets the agenda. Further, the footage suggests that the only thing these vox pops were given to go on when assessing Grant Robertson’s fitness to be Prime Minister was that he was gay — so it was the only thing on the agenda. Worse yet; one respondent, when prompted to choose between Jones and Cunliffe, asked “Shane Jones … is he a gay too?” suggesting that not only was she not very well placed to make an informed assessment of the comparative merits of each candidate, but that asking her to do so anyway, taking her word as an indication of general union sentiment and then playing her naïve answer on national TV bordered on exploitation. (At least part of my assessment is shared by Neale Jones from the EPMU, who was there, and said on Twitter, “Sabin went around repeatedly badgering workers about whether they had a problem with Grant’s sexuality. Got story he wanted.”)
The Identity Agenda
So that’s ironic. But the deeper irony of this is that David Cunliffe is the darling of many of the people on the activist left who have railed most fiercely against “identity politics” all these years. (Check the list of endorsements here). There’s no policy to speak of in this contest — Cunliffe’s campaign is identity politics through and through, and yet the activist left loves him for it. I don’t think it’s unfair to observe that they love him, and they love it, because now it feels like their identity being prioritised in politics, as if it hasn’t ever been before. All that evil old “identity politics” they railed against before — the problem wasn’t that it was identity politics, but that it wasn’t their identity politics.
But I’m glad they love it. It works, after all. We have a strong sense of who David Cunliffe is, where he comes from and what motivates him, and that helps us understand, and more importantly to believe, his strategic vision and the policy platform he articulates. I think he genuinely does speak to a wider audience of potential Labour supporters than any recent leader, and that can only be a good thing for the party and the polity as a whole. If he wins, and I think he will, I hope it will go some distance to demonstrating that identity and ideology aren’t zero-sum; they’re complementary. Maybe once that realisation sinks in we’ll be really ready for a gay Prime Minister, or a Māori one.
This evening the GCSB Amendment Bill passed its third reading in Parliament, 61-59, despite a desperate last-minute campaign to persuade selected government MPs to cross the floor and vote against the bill.
I’m sure everyone involved would accept it was a long shot, a last-ditch effort after every other challenge had failed. But it shares some faults with the remainder of the campaign, and the left’s political strategy more generally, which has been marked by a lack of coherence and internal consistency, poor targeting, and seemingly more at shoring up support among activists than in extending that support.
The merits of the GCSB issue were thoroughly thrashed out — the main problem is that it is an extremely complex topic about which few people have the expertise to make authoritative claims. Nevertheless, many of those people have made such statements, and the evidence is out there. This has been the strongest aspect of the “Stop the GCSB Bill” campaign more generally: its appeal to evidence.
But this was not a topic upon which government MPs were amenable to evidence. If they had been, they would surely have been swayed by testimony from the Law Society, the Human Rights Commission, and defence, security and IT experts including the former head of the GCSB itself. They were not moved by these appeals to evidence; not even slightly. They simply hold a different opinion on the merits of the GCSB Bill, one that happens to not be supported by the aforementioned experts (no doubt the PM provided another set of experts who gave them a counterview).
This is fundamentally because their motivation for passing the bill is ideological, not policy-oriented. National governments are strong on security. Whether they are or not, it’s part of their brand. They keep people safe, both at the day-to-day criminal level and at the level of transnational crime and terrorism. They are simply not willing to let some liberal bed-wetters prevent them from implementing a security system that better suits their petit-authoritarian worldview.
Calls to cross the floor arose mainly from the left-liberal activist community. The biggest problem with calling on your ideological foes to cross the floor is that they’re your ideological foes. If they cared about what you thought, they wouldn’t be your foes, and they very likely would be amenable to changing their views based on the evidence, or at least to moderating them and cooperating.
But this is war. Not war on terrorism; war on the liberals, who are the real strategic threat to this government, and are ascendant in New Zealand’s left following the success of marriage equality, the continuing strength of the Greens, relative to Labour. In a war, when your enemies offer to parley, it is a sign of weakness, and nobody could mistake left-wing activists begging the Minister of Justice for a vote to sink a key plank of her government’s legislative agenda as anything other than a sign of desperation. In a war, when your enemies offer to parley, you only accept if you can’t crush them, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women. Hard ideological power is rarely vulnerable to moral suasion.
Trying to persuade individual MPs to betray their cause from a position of such ideological and strategic isolation was never likely to have any effect other than to harden their resolve, and to increase pressure on them from within their party to toe the line. In particular, given the vitriol to which certain MPs — notably Peter Dunne, hilariously regarded as being the most likely to switch — have been subjected in recent months, a sudden switch to flattery and appeals to better nature was simply incoherent and too jarring to be credible. Even a dog, if mistreated, will bite when petted. The fact that so much abuse continued even after the charm offensive began made it doubly ineffective.
In many ways this was a concentrated version of the overall strategy of moral and evidence-based persuasion: because support for the bill has been framed in a partisan way, there’s little point in convincing your own side. The task is to convince people who, for the most part, like John Key and trust his government that they are neither likeable nor trustworthy. It’s a hard thing to do — but doubly hard when your cause gets occupied by the Occupy movement, a point that Pablo made in one of his many excellent posts on this topic recently.
Nine MPs were selected. Not to say that there were any actually good targets, but the selections misunderstand each MP’s place within the government machine.
The most obviously-idiotic target was Judith Collins, the Minister of Justice and probably the toughest authoritarian in government, including Key himself. Converting her was simply never a happening thing. National party newcomers Paul Foster-Bell and Claudette Hauiti were almost as laughable, given that their political careers exist only at the pleasure of the party.
Peter Dunne was probably the best target six months ago, except that he has since been subject to the greatest amount of vitriol over this issue. His relationship with the government has also been weakened recently, a bond he needed to renew, which he has.
John Banks, although personally of a nature similar to Collins, is vulnerable to his party machine which could possibly have been talked around — but the activist left thinks of him (and it) as being beyond liberal redemption, in spite of his voting in favour of marriage equality.
The others (Sam Lotu-Iiga, Melissa Lee, Jami-Lee Ross, and Nicky Wagner), were no worse than anyone else in the party.
Who do you love?
The only thing that gives a non-delusional Prime Minister in this data-driven age the sort of swagger John Key has is the knowledge that the polls are solid. There have been a few public polls: Research NZ; ONE News/Colmar Brunton; 3 News/Reid Research and most recently Fairfax/Ipsos.
Campbell Live’s unscientific, self-selecting plebiscite is barely worth a mention. So of these polls, only the last gives anything like a picture of an electorate that is closely engaged with this issue; it tells us three-quarters of New Zealanders do care about the GCSB Bill. But 75% on its own means nothing. Polls told us that 80% of the electorate opposed asset sales, and look how that worked out. This poll also tells us how much they care, and the answer is: only 30% are very concerned, and 25% aren’t concerned at all. More than half trust the government to “protect their right to privacy while maintaining national security”.
Key and his government will have much better polling than this, and broken down by party allegiance, too, and that’s important — Key would be perfectly happy to alienate 30%, or even 40% of the population as long as they’re all committed Labour and Green voters, and more than half overall still basically trust him. Key said people were more interested in snapper quotas than the GCSB bill, and he’s probably right — if you read that as “people who might actually vote for him.”
What was the performance in aid of?
The major effect of this campaign was to give the activist community something to believe in, a sense that they were Doing Something, rather than just sitting there while their freedoms got gutted. It was very much attuned towards focusing existing opposition, rather than towards expanding that opposition. (This was true to a lesser extent of the public meetings and mass rallies, which effectively church services, but these did also have an important role in disseminating evidence and bringing the discourse into the mass media).
The effect has been clear: there has been no effect. While opinion polling for the left has picked up in the last few days, it remains to be seen whether this will persist.
Although this one was poorly-executed I also don’t think a “cross the floor” campaign was necessarily a bad idea. Theatre matters. Morale matters. For all the criticism, there are many positives here. One is that people have gotten angry — even if it’s only a relatively small cadre of activists, that’s something we haven’t really seen much of recently. And there are some signs the discord may spread further (though not much further, as yet).
But while Do Something campaigns can be worthy in terms of making people feel better about losing, that is often all they are good for. They are often not very effective in terms of actually winning. This campaign worked well as a salve, but as far as effectiveness goes it was badly framed and focused on the wrong objective. It was both too partisan to draw in broad support from across the ideological spectrum, and then, later (once its ideological hostility was confirmed) began to treat the government as only a semi-hostile force that might be reasoned with. A less-ideological campaign to begin with, hardening into a more rigorous strategy as it became clear that the government would remain intransigent would likely have been more effective if it could have been stitched together (admittedly a big if).
Further, focusing on the bill’s passage was unrealistic. It was a fair enough interim goal, but more realistic is to focus on the repeal of the bill — now act — when Labour and the Greens are next in government, and to use it as a lever to assist them into government. Good progress has been made towards this as well, especially in securing what seems to be solid assurances of repeal from Labour, whose prior form on civil liberties has been very mixed.
What remains to be seen is if those involved can maintain momentum for another year. If they can, and this kicks off a 14-month campaign season, then it will have been a triumph, in spite of its tactical failure.