Posts Tagged ‘Catherine Isaac’

The hazards of MMP

datePosted on 10:14, June 5th, 2014 by Lew

David Cunliffe’s apparently-rash pledge to scrap the coat-tail rule that permits a party with less than 5% of the party vote to bring in additional MPs as long as it wins an electorate within 100 days turns out to not be quite so bold: it looks as if they simply intend to introduce Iain Lees-Galloway’s member’s bill — currently before Parliament — enacting (most of) the recommendations of the Electoral Commission as government legislation. That isn’t bad. It initially seemed as if he intended to ram through just this one cherry-picked rule under urgency, and some of us overreacted to it. There are still problems with the plan, but they are more complex.

Anyway, the episode throws light upon a lot of the tradeoffs and subtleties inherent in MMP — the major one of which is whether proportionality or equity in the distribution of proportionality is more crucial.

What MMP is good for
MMP is a rather ugly, instrumental system for balancing the expressed wishes of fickle and often arbitrary voters with regard to an volatile and rather shallow pool of political talent against the need for stability. It is not a means by which to determine moral merit, as trial-by-political-combat FPP claims to be, and nor is it a route to the mutually-least-bad choice, as in STV and related systems. It is what it is.

What it is not is an elegant expression of noble political aims. I guess this is why traditionalists dislike it viscerally: it feels kinda shabby, but it works.

“Rorts” and electorate-level match-fixing
So with that last point in mind, Danyl has said it best: the game is the game. Its job is not to look nice, it’s to deliver representative parliaments. I don’t much like it, but the utility of the kind of strategy in play in Epsom is obvious, so fair enough — as I said before the 2011 election, “If the electorate won’t punish them for doing so they’d be rude not to.”

Two things to add. The first is that the electorate clearly isn’t inclined to punish the ACT and UnitedFuture parties, at least not locally, because in the solitude of a cardboard booth, orange marker in hand, self-interest tends to overcome ethical compunctions. But the appeal to such compunctions is still the only way to reduce the viability of the “rorts”, so it is natural that those opposed will try to jawbone those compunctions. Patrick Gower is leading the charge here — although he, too, has been consistent in his derangement about this topic since before the 2011 election.

Second, the agreement between the Internet and Mana parties where Hone Harawira’s seat in Te Tai Tokerau will, they hope, bring in Internet party votes and list MPs is emphatically not of the same type as Epsom and Ōhariu, where major parties throw the electorate to exploit the coat-tail rule. Nobody is throwing anything in Te Tai Tokerau — in fact, it seems likely to be one of the most strongly-contested electorates in the country, a fact which is causing conniptions in some quarters. While the electoral outcome will look similar to the undiscerning eye, the Internet MANA deal is different — smaller parties allying to overcome structural barriers to their participation in democracy. Not only is it not only not a rort, it is perfectly just and rational behaviour in the face of an iniquitous system.

Consensus and timing of law changes
In general there should be consensus in changes to electoral law. But I agree with Rob Salmond that “should” is not the same as “must” — the object is to be sure that changes will be generally popular, and will be durable, and in this case an independent commission and the deep consultation that occurred during and after the referendum strongly suggests that implementing the recommendations via the Lees-Galloway bill will be both those things.

But timing matters: now that Internet MANA has declared its hand and chosen to take advantage of the coat-tail rule in a similar way as ACT and UnitedFuture, it would be unjust to change the rule immediately before the election. Depending on how things play, it might still be unjust to change the rule without further consultation after the election, because it may be that people see in the Internet MANA a new way to challenge the entrenched parties (I plan on writing more about this if I get time). For this reason it is good that John Key has ruled out supporting the Lees-Galloway bill.

Proportionality versus equity
All that having been said, I favour scrapping the coat-tail rule. Even though, as Graeme Edgeler has explained, it increases proportionality rather than decreasing it, mitigating the effect of the 5% threshold that kept New Zealand First, with 4.07% of the party vote, out of Parliament in 2008. The trouble is that it increases proportionality selectively rather than equitably — that is, among minor parties who are willing and able to become the vassals of larger parties — as Gower said in 2011 “It’s finally official: John Key owns the ACT Party.” Proportionality in an instrumental system is not an intrinsic good that automatically trumps other considerations. Process does matter. But outcomes matter too.

Political clientism in an instrumental system is not so much morally or ethically wrong as it tends to degrade representativeness, and delivers huge benefits to the strongest parties — who have the ability to burn political capital to take advantage of these sorts of relationships — in ways other parties cannot. So while you get the appearance of more diverse representation, the effect is more that the liege party gets to offload political risk and responsibility to its vassals. The clearest case of the present government is the charter school policy that, had National passed it of its own volition, would have endangered Key’s moderate reputation. ACT’s presence in parliament — even without deputy leader Catherine Isaac, who was outrageously granted the sinecure implementing the charter schools plan — gave the government cover to implement policy they wanted, but which was too politically risky.

Self-interest dressed as principle
So to an extent the proposal from Labour is sour-grapery from a political middle power that is neither big enough to be able to benefit from the coat-tail rule, nor small enough to potentially need it. For all their posturing about the integrity of the system, I am sure they would use it if they could get away with it (as they did in Coromandel in 1999), but they can’t. They have no potential clients, so they have no need for the coat-tail rule. The Greens, secure above the threshold, don’t need them for this, and they (correctly, in my view) regard Internet MANA as too radical for such a relationship. The retreat to electorate nostalgia is also strategic positioning from a party that has seen the resentment that exists towards list MPs, and has pledged to re-take the provinces and rebuild its electorate network.

National’s refusal to implement the findings of the commission also come clearly down to self-interest. They are so far the major beneficiaries of the coat-tail provisions, having used their two vassal parties to good effect through both terms of their government.

Ultimately while both the major parties’ positions are self-interested, Labour comes closest to the right conclusion: that the iniquity of the coat-tail rule’s additional proportionality is a greater cost than the additional representation gained by it is worth. The best cure for the problem is to cut the party vote threshold — to 1/120th of the party vote, or a “full seat”, which would obviate the coat-tail rule. Scrapping the coat-tail rule is a rather distant second-best outcome, but doing that as well as cutting the threshold to 4% as recommended by the commission seems like the sort of compromise with which nobody will be totally happy, but which will endure.

Because functionality is what matters, not perfection.

L

Gilmore’s ghosts

datePosted on 10:36, May 11th, 2013 by Lew

I disagree with Pablo’s post about media treatment of the Aaron Gilmore saga — but I only disagree a little. In my view the Gilmore case is “stuff that really matters”, but I do agree with Pablo that most of the coverage of it isn’t getting to the “stuff that really matters” elements of the case nearly well enough, and that it is displacing coverage of more crucial issues from the agenda. All the stories Pablo mentions are worthy of much more, and more in-depth reporting than they have received. Two other points Pablo makes are particularly valuable — that “blood in the water is not akin to developing real critiques of the way power is exercised”, and that “the problem of Gilmore’s unwillingness to resign stems not from MMP but from political party charters regarding their lists in an MMP environment.”

The Gilmore story is important, as are those others — but the coverage is so individuated to him that it makes the issues seem trivial, because ultimately, if you reduce the story to that of a drunken backbencher, it is. At the heart of the Gilmore saga is the abuse of power, and the problem is that the coverage is about Aaron Gilmore’s attempted abuse of his own power, not about a culture within the National Party and the government where the abuse of power is not merely acceptable, but routine and expected.

The deep questions — how such a megalomaniac got into an electable position on a party list; who, having been apprised of these born-to-rule tendencies after previous incidents of this sort, approved his position; and the implications of this for the health of our democracy — these are important questions. They haven’t really been asked, or answered, though Matthew Hooton, of all people, had a go at it early on.

The John Key National-led government has a lot of form for bad and self-serving appointments, and for the abuse of power. This has presented opportunities for the opposition to frame them as serial cronyists, which they haven’t been able to take. (I wrote a couple of things about this in the first term — it’s not new). And it’s still going: to hear locals tell it, how Gerry Brownlee and CERA are treating Eastern Christchurch isn’t all that different in its principles to how Aaron Gilmore treats waiters and public servants. (The difference is that they have real power.) Recent appointments on the basis of loyalty or malleability at the expense of quality or expertise include Catherine Isaac to implement charter schools, Ian Fletcher as head of the GCSB and Dame Susan Devoy as race relations commissioner.

This is a government which has been particularly unconcerned with even the appearance of due process, and this should be acknowledged in every story on this topic. There’s no credible argument they hadn’t done due diligence on Aaron Gilmore — he was already in Parliament once. Why do they appoint people like this, and why do they get away with it?

The hard truth is that political parties will overlook an awful lot if there’s a financial or electoral advantage to doing so, just as corporations will. Militaries will overlook almost literally anything, up to and including the mass murder of civilians. This is true of the “nice” guys as well as the nasty ones — the Obama administration’s continuing support of Guantanamo Bay and its increasing use of UAVs are two clear examples of this. Apple products are manufactured by the notoriously exploitative Foxconn (Apple is far from alone in this, but we’re supposed to think Apple is somehow better than others). For a recent local example, see the Labour Party’s dogged defence of Taito Phillip Field, whose abuse of vulnerable workers cut directly against everything a Labour party ought to stand for. There are many more.

The fundamental reason this sort of behaviour is endemic is that we — as voters, or in the corporate case, as consumers — reward it with our votes, or our wallets, or both. Parties and companies that eschew these methods tend to lose to those who accept them as an ethical cost of doing business because while we are happy to get outraged, when the chips are really down, we don’t actually care that much about this sort of thing. It doesn’t really change our behaviour.

The danger is that people start caring, and more importantly, start remembering, and changing their behaviour. If the Aaron Gilmore affair haunts the National party — and the other parties — such that they see a strong downside risk to appointing cronies, selecting megalomaniacs for their lists, and generally swaggering around as if they own the place, we’ll all be better off. If parties are forced to accept responsibility for their bad decisions, and as a consequence to select better people and implement better systems of accountability and conduct, cultures of power-abuse will abate. Incidentally, this is why I don’t favour a rule that allows parties to eject rogue MPs from Parliament* — the Nats bought Aaron Gilmore, they own him. We should judge the entire party by his actions.

But for this sort of change to occur, we need media coverage to develop those real critiques of the exercise of power, rather than critiques of an obnoxious individual who is ultimately just a product of larger cultural systems. That would make this sort of wall-to-wall coverage worthwhile.

L

* Though I still believe any credible political leader should be resourceful enough to find ways to persuade rogue MPs to resign.

A dialogue with Alwyn Poole on charter schools

datePosted on 12:25, September 19th, 2012 by Lew

Following my recent post on charter schools and the Canterbury education restructure I received an email from Alwyn Poole, principal of the private Mt Hobson Middle School, disagreeing with my assessment. The ensuing discussion was good, so I’ve posted it here with Alwyn’s agreement. (Below the fold).

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