Posts Tagged ‘Chris Trotter’
Last year I wrote a series of posts outlining what in my view were the reasons the NZ Left was in major if not terminal decline. The posts began before and concluded after the 2014 election and can be found in chronological order here, here and here. There were plenty of people who disagreed with my take on things, with the most vocal detractor being that doyenne of the NZ Left, Chris Trotter. The second of my posts answered his original critique (link to his critique in the post) and he followed up some time later with another post in which he takes me to task for saying that the Left should not resort to Dirty Politics style tactics in order to prevail. He chided me for my idealism and noted that he dealt in pragmatics and pragmatism dictated that the Left should play dirty if it was to defeat the forces of darkness now reigning triumphant in this land.
Given that I have a fair bit of past practical experience with direct action politics, albeit not in NZ, I found the charge of idealism a bit odd. Given what he said previously about the Left’s continued viability and strength, even odder was Chris’s admission that Dirty Politics works and needs to be used by the Left if it is to succeed in the contemporary political arena. If the NZ Left were truly viable would it need to resort to playing dirty? I thought that was the province of pro-capitalist parties whose policies hurt the masses and have little popular appeal due to their elite focus.
Be that as it may, imagine then my surprise when I read this from the redoubtable Mr. Trotter. Therein Chris draws the parallel between the “clever and artistic” denizens of cabaret society in the Weimer Republic and what Dave Brown (in a comment on the post) pointedly calls the “chatterati” assembled to watch a panel discussion of media types–not all of them of the Left–gathered at a restaurant part owned by Laila Harre in order to to lament the demise of Campbell Live. Beyond noting that a well placed bomb would have eliminated the “cream” of Auckland’s chattering Left, he goes on to note the distance between them and the “very different New Zealand” that exists outside of Ms. Harre’s fine dining establishment and whose TV viewing preferences may not be akin to those sipping chardonnay’s inside. His tone is implicitly insulting of those he broke bread with as the media commentators opined about Mr. Campbell, other talking heads, themselves and the state of the NZ media landscape.
Now, I am not one to gleefully point out contradictions or reversals by others, such as that done by some Left commentators on the subject of the Urewera Raids. And I must confess that I am little more than a chatterer myself these days. But given the thrust of Chris’s latest post in light of what he has said before about the NZ Left, I have just one question to ask:
Is he still steering by the real?
Because if he is, then it appears that he has joined my side of the argument about the NZ Left and for that I salute him. Belated as it may be, it was time to wise up.
The issue now is how to move beyond the parlour talk of the chattering Left and into organizing a counter-hegemonic project grounded in effective praxis. As I have said before that is a very big task and needs to be oriented around a discernible class line. The UNITE union is a small beacon of hope in this regard, but there is much more that needs to be done if anything remotely close to a Left resurgence is to translate into contestable politics. Labour and the Greens are too committed to centrist politics and working within the system as given to be anything other than reformists and passive revolutionaries. Real change can only come from the grassroots and rank and file, and those need to be cultivated via ideological appeals that feel immediate and achievable and which transcend the diversionary rubbish pushed by popular culture, corporate media and a government hell bent on dumbing down the quality of political and social discourse.
What is needed, in other words, is a legitimate war of position, however incremental it may have to be fought.
That is something the chattering Left simply cannot do.
In the wake of Nicky Hager’s latest revelations, Chris Trotter has penned a cynical defense of dirty politics as being the norm. For Chris, when it comes to politics “(t)he options are not fair means or foul: they are foul means or fouler.”
Idiot Savant at No Right Turn categorically rejects this view. I agree with him and can only add that either Chris has lost his ideological bearings or has consciously decided to join the Dark Side.
The Standard reprinted the NRT post and I commented on it there. Here is what I wrote:
“The stability of democracy is based on mutual contingent consent, not only between capitalists and workers but between opposing political factions. Mutual contingent consent requires that all actors accept mutual second best outcomes (that is, no one gets their preferred outcome all of the time), something that is evident, for example, in compromises over wages and employment conditions at the bargaining table or in the lobbying of political parties over legislation. “Winning” is therefore temporary and tempered by the pursuit of self-limiting strategies in pursuit of the mutual second best. Otherwise the political game descends into zero-sum self-interested maximisation of collective opportunities. That is not democracy, even if there are those within the democratic system who adhere to such views.
This is why Chris is wrong. He mistakes the venal pursuits of a political few for the general substance of democracy as a political form. The pursuit of dirty politics represents a fundamental corrosion of democratic principle and practice. It reflects a fundamental contempt for the foundational tenets of this type of governance. That this contempt is channeled into underhanded tactics by some does not undermine the core values upon which democracy rests and in fact serves to underscore what democracy is not. That the resort to dirty politics in NZ has at its core a group of people with pathological tendencies and profoundly disagreeable personalities is further proof that their style of play is not politics as usual.
Chris may be a bit jaded by years of fighting the good fight in losing wars. He seems to given up all hope that politics can be played cleanly. But he and many others (including some on the Right) would not have fought, and continue to fight, if they did not think that there was a better way to do things in pursuit of a just society. Mr. Slater, Mr. Ede, Mr. Bhatnagar, Ms. Odgers, Judith Collins and John Key clearly do not, but that does not mean that democracy as a whole is reducible to their contemptible view of politics.”
Let us be crystal clear. There is no moral equivalence between what the Left does or may wish to do versus what the organised dirty tricks cell centred around Cameron Slater does. Moreover, what Slater and company do centrally underpins not just how National engages politics, but how ACT has done as well. In contrast, Left activist groups may sputter about “direct action,” hold demonstrations and on occasion undertake animal liberations or environmental defense by climbing into trees or blocking trains, but they do not systematically attempt to uncover dirty laundry in order to smear, blackmail or undermine opponents within and outside their partisan ranks. They do not take covert money in order to cut and paste ghost written attack columns supplied by others. They do not get favoured backdoor access to sensitive government documents based upon their partisan, when not ministerial, connections. Perhaps that is why they are less effectual than those on the Dark Side.
The institutional Left centred in the Labour Party may gossip about their rivals across the aisle and backstab each other in factional disputes, but even then there are limits to where they will go in the pursuit of “winning.” The Slater-led dirty tricksters have no such limits.
Whatever his motivations, Chris needs to reconsider his position. There still is room for the good fight to be fought fairly even if the opponent does not. Contrary to what John Key believes, that applies as much to politics as it does to sports.
Posted on 15:29, January 23rd, 2014 by Pablo
The post on the death of the NZ political Left has elicited a fair bit of commentary. That is good, because my purpose in writing it as a polemic was to foster debate about the internal weakness of the NZ Left and possible solutions to that problem. I did not discuss all of the negative externalities that work against a revival of the Left, but many others have, both in the comments on the original post as well as in the commentary in places like The Standard. In fact, some of the discussion in the thread on the original post as well as the Standard thread has been very good.
Needless to say, the right wing blogosphere loved the post. Kiwiblog, Keeping Stock and Whaleoil jumped at the opportunity to put the boot in. I commented on the Kiwiblog thread, where I was accused of defining what the “real” and “fake” Left were and of being one of those people who denigrate anything that does not fit their narrow definition of what being “Left” means. One nice person on the Standard derided me for being a “defeatist” and engaging in “self-flagellation.” This kind soul also harked to the idealism and determination of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King to show that we should not give up the fight, perhaps forgetting that Mandela renounced socialism once he became president (supposedly to protect democracy) and MLK –never a Leftist, he–got shot for his troubles long before racial equality was achieved in the US. Anyway, it was all quite entertaining.
Now Chris Trotter has entered the fray with this exposition: http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2014/01/23/theres-plenty-left-chris-trotter-responds-to-paul-buchanans-critique-of-the-new-zealand-left/
I wrote a response but it was not published by the Daily Blog administrator. Since my comment on Chris’s rejoinder was submitted more than 15 hours ago and 29 other comments have appeared, I assume that it will not be published, so I shall re-print it here:
“Fair rejoinder, but a bit off the mark.
The point of my polemic was to stir debate about the internal weaknesses of the NZ Left that have neutered it as a political alternative to the capitalist socio-political project. Besides the abandonment of a broad working class focus and socialist principles by the institutionalized Left (the party-union nexus) in favour of more narrow po-mo concerns and piecemeal challenges to the market-driven project, there is the factionalization, in-fighting, oligarchical leadership and general political insignificance of the activist Left. This opens the door to opportunists and charlatans to claim ideological leadership within the Left as a vehicle for self-interested advancement.
I see the cultural Left as having significance, but as a political force nether it or much of the informed Left commentariat have much political sway. And when some of that commentariat quietly seek remunerated ties to political actors who are the antithesis of everything socialism stands for, well, that is unfortunate.
So no, I do not share your optimism, but I am far from defeatist by directly addressing what I see as the elephants in the NZ Left room. Self-criticism and self-assessment are good things to do in good times and bad, and in my view the current moment is bad for the NZ Left.
Some of the commentary on the original post address ways to recapture the moment.
I do like your use of Gramsci though. Shallow as it may be in the context of this rejoinder, it points to the necessity of waging an effective counter-hegemonic war of position within the system, using what is given as instruments of usurpation of the ideological status quo.”
I should note that in his post Chris waxes positive about the Labour Party, the Greens, Mana and the CTU. In doing so he helps make my original case: none of these organizations are “Left” in the sense of being socialist or even primarily worker-focused, whatever they may have been at their inception. They may use socialist rhetoric and act “progressive” when compared to National and its allies, and they may be a better choice for Left-leaning people when it comes to electoral preferences and collective representation, but the hard fact is that play the game by the rules as given, do not challenge the system as given and, to be honest, just chip away around the superstructural margins of the edifice that is NZ capitalism.
Although I believe that the NZ political left is comatose if not dead, this does not mean that it cannot be revived or resurrected. As I said to a commentator on my original post, Keynesian economics in liberal democracies led to a 60 year period of class compromise that replaced the politics of class conflict extant prior to 1930. The so-called neo-liberal project in NZ was trialled under authoritarian conditions in places like Chile (yes Chris, I do remember Pinochet in part because his economic policies were emulated by Roger Douglas and company and marked the turn towards feral market-driven policy that persists in NZ today despite your protestations). It if founded on a direct return to the politics of class conflict, this time initiated by the upper bourgeoisie operating from an advantaged global position against the organized working classes via regressive labor legislation and the privatization of state provided welfare, health and education programs.
Many say the neoliberal elite are hegemonic when doing so. I disagree, in part because unlike Chris (who threw some Antonio Gramsci quotes into his rejoinder) I have spent a lot of time studying Gramsci’s concept of “egemonia,” (hegemony, or ideological leadership by consent) specifically its difference with the concept of “dominio” (domination, or rule by submission or acquiescence). Giovanni Tiso wrote a comment of Chris’s post that captures just a part of why Chris went a bit to far with his misuse of the words of the person who coined the non-Leninist interpretation of that special concept amongst the po-mo Left. I mention this because the entire thrust of Chris’s rejoinder read more like an instance of intellectual one-upmanship rather than a reasoned counter-argument.
The fact is that the current ideological dominance of the market-focused elite is only hegemonic in the measure that the political Left allows it to be. In NZ fair-minded people obey but do not consent to the system as given. In my view internal problems in the Left prevent it from presenting a viable counter-argument, much less counter-hegemonic alternative to the contemporary status quo.
It may not be armed conflict but the NZ market project, be it subtle, buffered or stark, is a war against the working classes, one that is based on the atomization of said classes via the destruction of class-based unions and ideological diversions that promote narrow sectoral representation based upon collective assumptions about the primacy of individual self-interest over solidarity, and which privileges greed over empathy.
In comments on the original post I offer some limited suggestions about a new Left praxis in NZ. I am sure that there are many other avenues to explore along those lines. The market-driven project (which is no longer “neoliberal” in the original sense of the term), was an obvious and transparent return to the politics of class conflict, with preferential terms dictated by the financial elite.
No matter how dominant this ideology is at this moment, it opens a window of opportunity for the NZ Left, if it knows how to take the advantage. Rather than a monolithic compendium of all that is impossible to those born wrong, it renders bare the inegalitarian and exploitative foundations of the current socio-economic order as well as the abjectly quisling nature of the political elite that support it.
One final thought. I do not object to Leftists trying to earn a living, even if that means working in capitalist institutions on capitalist terms. I have to do so.
I do not even mind Leftists who live off of trust funds or marry well. In fact, I do not object to Leftists taking up paid work for non-Left parties as part of a tactical alliance against a common enemy or as a way of learning about the enemy from within.
I believe that those on the Left, much more so than those on the Right, need to be upfront about these apparent contradictions. They need to understand that touching power is not the same as confronting, much less wielding it. That is why I object to concealment of financial relationships between capitalist economic and political entities and those who publicly proclaim themselves to be Lions of the Left and champions of the dispossessed and voiceless.
My bottom line? We all have contradictions in our lives. For those on the Left the contradictions of living in a capitalist society can be overwhelming at times. It is how we resolve our ideological contradictions that separates the honest from the hypocritical.
Accusations that the NZDF may have been spying on journalist Jon Stephenson during or after he was in Afghanistan researching what turned into a series of very critical stories about the actuality of SAS operations in support of the elite Afghan counter-terrorism Crisis Response Unit (CRU) have sparked both public outrage and government backlash. Numerous media entities and civil libertarians have protested the alleged spying as an infringement on press freedom, with the story now picked up by the US press because Mr. Stephenson was working for a US based news service when the spying supposedly occurred, and the spying may have been carried out by US agencies.
It is early days yet in the development of the story, but there are numerous angles that if explored could lead to a can of worms being opened on the NZDF and NZ government as well as the US administration. More immediately, if what has been made public so far is accurate then there are some NZ-focused issues to ponder, which can be broadly divided into matters of short and long-term consequence.
The specific accusation is that NZDF obtained meta-data about Mr. Stephenson’s phone records from US intelligence sources while he was in Kabul. This meta-data included the phone numbers of those he contacted or who called him while in theater, which could be “mined” and subject to network analysis in order to create signal maps and flow charts of the patterns of communication between them as well as with Mr. Stephenson (what have been called signals meta-data “trees”).
Implicit in the original story by Nicky Hager is the possibility that the content of Mr. Stephenson’s conversations and possibly his emails were accessed by the NZDF, or at least by foreign partners who then shared that information with the NZDF.
This is the short aspect of the story. Mr. Hager believes that Mr. Stephenson was subject to an NSA signals trolling scheme akin to that done by the PRISM program, and that the NZDF may have requested that Mr. Stephenson be surveilled by the NSA as a result of Stephenson’s investigation but also because the NZDF could not spy on him directly. However, since the SIS and GCSB had officers on the ground in Kabul and shared workspace with NSA and CIA personnel, the possibility was raised that they were somehow involved in the electronic monitoring of Mr. Stephenson, either has initiators or recipients of the NSA meta-data mining of his communications.
This may or may not prove true. The government and NZDF flatly deny that any spying, whether by the NSA, GCSB or NZDF, was done on Mr. Stephenson. Mr. Hager claims to have evidence that NZDF personnel obtained Mr. Stephenson’s telephone meta-data (presumably he has at least been shown that data by the NZDF personnel who are his sources).
One of these versions is apparently false, although there may be a twist to the story that bridges the veracity gap between them.
Since Mr. Stephenson was in a declared conflict zone in which a multinational military coalition was engaged, he was inevitably subject to military intelligence collection. Military organizations and their various service branches maintain human and signals intelligence collection units that focus on tactical aspects of the conflict zone. That would, at a minimum, include canvassing local telephone and email networks for information on potential threats and contextual background. Such collection is designed to facilitate “actionable” intelligence: information that can be used to influence the political environment as well as the kinetic operations that occur within it.
It is possible that Mr. Stephenson’s phone records were collected by an ISAF military signals intelligence unit. It probably was that of a US military unit. That unit may have identified Mr. Stephenson as a New Zealander and passed his information on to one of the intelligence shops located at Bagram Air Force base or elsewhere for sharing with the NZDF as a professional courtesy and a “head’s up” on who Mr. Stephenson was involved with.
If this is true, then Mr. Hager’s NSA/PRISM/GCSB/NZDF spying scenario is wrong. However, the issue does not end there. The big questions are whether the NZDF requested that an allied military signals intelligence unit spy on Mr. Stephenson, or if not, what it did with the information about Mr. Stephenson volunteered to it by its ally.
If the latter is the case, then it is possible that the NZDF took no action because it either considered the information marginal to its intelligence concerns or improper for it to receive and use. That in turn could have led to the destruction of that meta-data after it was received.
On the other hand, if the NZDF requested said information about Mr. Stephenson from a military intelligence partner, that would make any subsequent meta-data record destruction an attempt to eliminate evidence of that request or the use to which the data-mining was put.
It should be noted that such spying in conflict zones is usual and to be expected by anyone operating with them, journalists and non-journalists alike. Moreover, it is perfectly legal as well as reasonable for the NZDF to share information with its military intelligence partners, even if it includes information about unaffiliated NZ citizens operating in conflict zones in which the NZDF is deployed. Thus it would not have been unlawful for the NZDF to obtain Mr. Stephenson’s electronic meta-data whether it initiated its collection or merely received the results.
This extends to its use of the SIS or GCSB to assist in said collection, since the SIS is empowered to spy on NZ citizens and the GCSB was working in a foreign theater in which Mr. Stephenson was working for a “foreign entity” (McClatchy New Service), therefore making him a legitimate target under the 2003 GCSB Act. Whether one or both of these agencies was involved in the spying on Mr. Stephenson, should it have occurred, the eavesdropping could legally be conducted without warrant, again owing to situational circumstance.
However, just because something is legal does not make it right. This is where the long of the story comes into play.
Mr. Hager also revealed the existence of an NZDF operations manual, apparently drafted in 2003 and revised in 2005, that included at least “certain investigative journalists” along with hackers, foreign spy agencies, ideological extremists, disloyal employees, interest groups, and criminal organizations in the category of “subversive” threats (although it remains unclear as to when that particular passage was added to the text and who authored and authorized it). The definition of subversion was stretched to include those whose activities could undermine public morale or confidence in the government and NZDF. This included “political” activities deemed inimical to the NZDF image or reputation.
Whether it was included in the original version or added some time later (perhaps very recently), that definition of subversive threats is astounding. The language used borrows directly from the lexicon of the Pinochet dictatorship and Argentine Junta. It completely ignores the concept of press freedom in a democracy, which is premised on the autonomous separation of the media and the military as institutions. It lumps in so-defined subversive threats with physical threats to operational security in the field. That makes those identified as subversives enemies rather than adversaries, which allows them to be treated accordingly.
The wording of the passage about subversive threats in this manual says more about those who drafted it and the NZDF leadership that allowed it to become doctrine than it does about any real threat posed by journalists to the NZDF or government. Being embarrassed by critical reporting is not akin to being shot at. Even if written in the fevered years immediately after 9/11, the authors of that passage (and presumably others in the manual) display an authoritarian, anti-democratic mindset that is fundamentally inimical to democratic civil-military relations and, for that matter, democratic military professionalism.
Chris Trotter has noted that the NZDF, as a military organization, is authoritarian in nature and thus inherently un-, if not anti-democratic. I respect his view but disagree to an extent. Virtually all social organizations are hierarchical in nature–families, churches, private firms, unions, schools, bureaucracies, political parties and yes, the armed forces, police and intelligence agencies. That makes the egalitarian bases of democratic political society unlike virtually all other forms of social organization.
In other words, we are socialized in a hierarchical world and it is democracy as a political form that is the unnatural outlier.
Even so, although hierarchy can and often does tend towards authoritarianism, in democracies social organizations that are hierarchically constructed bow to the egalitarian meta-logic that posits that in their political interactions they are bound by notions of mutual respect, independence, corporate autonomy and non-interference. That is, they practice at a meta-level what they do not at the macro or micro-levels: in their interactions with each other groups forgo the hierarchical disposition that characterizes their internal governance.
This is important because the NZDF field manual that Mr. Hager exposed and whose existence is now confirmed by the government displays an authoritarian mindset and operational perspective that transcends the necessary hierarchy of NZDF organization. The NZDF is not inherently authoritarian because it is hierarchical in nature, but because, if the spying allegations are correct in light of the manual’s language about threats requiring military countering, its leadership displays an authoritarian disposition when it comes to things it finds objectionable, including pesky reporters (I shall leave aside Mr. Trotter’s remarks about military allegiance to the Queen rather than government or citizenry, although I take his point as to where its loyalty is directed and the impact that has on its transparency and adherence to democratic norms).
In sum: Consider what the manual says with regards to subversive threats in light of the well-publicized NZDF attacks on Mr. Stephenson’s professional and personal integrity that resulted in the defamation trial recently concluded (attacks that could well fit within the “counter-intelligence operations” recommended in the manual). Add in the claims by Mr. Stephenson that a senior military officer uttered death threats against him (the subject of a police complaint in 2011 that was not actioned). Factor in the NZDF admission in the defamation trial that it tracked Mr. Stephenson’s movements along with the possibility that the NZDF did acquire and utilize Mr. Stephenson’s telephone communications records in a capacity other than to detect tactical threats to units in theater. Further include Mr. Hager’s findings in his book Other Peoples Wars, in which the NZDF was seen to disregard government instructions regarding its conduct in foreign theaters and collaborated extensively with US intelligence (both military and civilian) in places like Bamiyan in spite of its repeated denials that it was doing anything other than building schools and roads in that province.
The conclusion? In light of this sequence of events it is very possible that the NZDF has systematically operated in an unprofessional and anti-democratic fashion for at least a decade, and particularly with regard to Mr. Stephenson.
This is a serious matter because it gives the impression that the NZDF has gone rogue (assuming that the governments of the day were, in fact, unaware of the language in the field manual or of the alleged spying). Rectifying this institutional anomaly is important. How to do so is critical.
It is not enough to blame the previous government and retired NZDF commanders for the manual, then excise the offending passage while maintaining that no NZDF records of spying on Mr. Stephenson exist. Instead, the NZDF leadership during this time period needs to be held accountable for allowing anti-democratic attitudes and practices to take root within it and, if need be, action needs to be taken against those who authorized the language of the manual and/or the spying if it happened. Only that way can confidence in NZDF accountability and commitment to democratic principles be restored.
In order for any of this to happen, yet another inquiry needs to be launched. Given the debates about the GCSB and TICS Bills and ongoing concerns about Police and SIS behaviour, that says something about the state of New Zealand’s security community at the moment.
David Shearer says he won’t rule out buying back shares in state-owned power companies sold by the government. He won’t rule it in, either. Why? Does he need to consult his leader?
There’s so much wrong with this that I scarcely know where to start. This buyback agenda has been set by Winston Peters; it’s now two years since the 2011 election campaign kicked off with a pledge to sell these assets, and it’s like the boffins in Labour haven’t yet had an original idea about it. The problem with old generals is supposed to be that they fight today’s war with the strategies of yesterday’s war, but this is worse — it’s fighting yesterday’s war with the strategies that lost the one before that.
But enough about my thoughts on the referendum. This time the issue is what happens after the SOEs are sold. Chris Trotter has articulated strong political arguments for nationalisation, and I think these serve to demonstrate that nationalisation is not simply untenable for a left-wing political movement.
So while I’m not persuaded the opposition should do it, there’s definitely a right and a wrong way to go about nationalisation. The core principles are similar to those in play with the initial privatisation: that we should have good information about the intentions of the main political decision-makers; and that people should not have property expropriated without due process. This need not be perfect consent — an election result delivering under 50% was sufficient to grant a mandate to privatise half the value of these assets, for example.
Market and electorate signals
A clear “we will buy them back” or “we will not buy them back” would do that; it would tell the market and the electorate what to expect and they could act accordingly. Both groups would know we were dealing with politicians of at least some sort of conviction, and more to the point, someone willing to make some big calls, to put something on the line. Today we see before us a Labour leader who has neither the conviction to know what he wants to do, nor any will to do it.
As Chris says, a stance one way or the other would provide Labour with a mandate. If Labour considers nationalisation irresponsible, then as voters we ought to know that; but it is much more crucial to justify an actual nationalisation programme. Given that the current criticism of the government is that they lack a mandate to do something they campaigned for a whole election year on doing, I struggle to see how even the most one-eyed Labour partisan could honestly justify the massive expense of buying back SOE shares unless it was clearly signalled and voted on beforehand.
This need not be unconditional. Graeme Edgeler has suggested a provisional pledge — Labour could say that if, say, two thirds of respondents in the referendum vote to not support the asset sales then an incoming Labour government would seek to nationalise them. David Shearer has many options that are better than “maybe”.
Economics of a sell-off/buyback
It might be reasonable for Labour to pledge to buy the shares back at cost, but only if the pledge is made credibly and early — certainly no later than the first round of sales. The pledge would be fair warning to investors: if they choose to disregard it, that’s on them.
Because it allows the markets to price in the risk of a Labour-led government coming in and making good on its promise, signalling nationalisation in this way would likely depress the initial sale value of shares. If the threat was sufficiently credible it could, in principle, depress demand for shares to the point that selling them would be uneconomical — thereby preventing the sale, or limiting it to just one or two SOEs. While this would look bad for the government there is also a downside risk that the opposition would be seen to be sabotaging the scheme — but given that Labour seems certain the scheme is unpopular, that should not concern them too much.
Because there is an ideological imperative behind the sale (that is to say, the market already knows the government has to sell in order to retain political credibility) it seems likely the shares will already yield less than what an equivalent float by a less-motivated seller might yield. There are other industry-specific factors which could also depress the price — the fact that hydro generation is not much good in the middle of a historic drought, for example. I have no knowledge of the value of the assets as they stand, but it doesn’t seem totally outrageous that it might not be all that high as it is, and a little more risk might just be enough to turn people away.
Conversely, a nationalisation conducted after the shares have been sold has the opposite effect. An ideological bulk-buyer in a fair market will bid the price up. Even worse is the middle-ground: if there exists sufficient uncertainty before the float the sale price could be depressed; followed by a Labour election win and nationalisation, causing the price to rise. The government would be selling low and buying high.
Venezuela of the South Pacific
The worst aspect of holding the “maybe” position Shearer has taken is that the risk of “Venezuela of the South Pacific” scaremongering exists as long as this scenario is not clearly and credibly ruled out. I don’t seriously believe this sort of expropriation would happen under a modern Labour government, but political narratives needn’t be based on reality.
If Labour commits to nationalisation then scaremongering will commence, but at least the party will be able to control the narrative around it, and articulate arguments in principle for it, as Chris has done. If the SOEs are that popular it shouldn’t be too big a risk. If Labour rules out nationalisation then such scaremongering may still eventuate, but will be weak. If they continue to sit on the fence, they get the scaremongering, but not the opportunity to rebut it. Lose-lose.
That Labour would even consider holding the “maybe” position is astonishing, but it is New Zealand First policy after all. It reflects an awareness that New Zealand First is here to stay, will probably hold the balance of power at the 2014 election, and could make nationalisation a condition of its being part of any Labour-led coalition. The deep problem is that Labour, lacking a political agenda of its own, is letting others define it. Until the party leader is prepared to lead, Labour will keep losing.
It should come as no surprise that I disagree with Chris Trotter’s latest piece about the Urewera raids. Don’t get me wrong — I think his assessment of the operational capability New Zealand police and intelligence services are correct. Their actions were strategically and tactically flawed, and they seemed to hold unrealistic expectations of the task they were undertaking. But some of the judgements Chris wraps around this argument are troubling to say the very least.
Not all of them. Some are fine: we need a competent security and intelligence apparatus, and the lack is something that should be rectified. Some are nonsense: a sophisticated left-wing propaganda network (where have they been these past two electoral terms?) and sleeper cells of “sympathetic journalists” (presumably not those who are shills for the corporate élite?). Some are merely distasteful. Others, however, are downright frightening, and the worst of these is the notion that the Crown should not be bound by its own laws when prosecuting dissident citizens.
Let’s not forget that some of this actually happened. Elements of the Crown case actually were leaked to the public, and some suppressed material was published in daily newspapers and was the subject of (unsuccessful) contempt proceedings.* Other elements, having been retrospectively ruled in by a court despite having been collected unlawfully, were used throughout the trial to create a prejudicial atmosphere around the trial.
Given those events, the argument here is essentially that the Crown didn’t leak enough evidence; didn’t act ruthlessly enough and was too heavily burdened with scruples to secure a “right” outcome. The call for an officer of the Crown to wilfully breach the very laws they have sworn to uphold, in the name of their own individual assessment of a complex situation, is extremely concerning. Having failed to conduct their evidence-gathering operations lawfully, and having failed to persuade a judge that, in spite of that, there was still a sufficient reason to admit all the evidence, the argument here is that the Crown should have taken an extrajudicial Mulligan.
When I started writing it this piece was considerably more personalised to Chris, and how his post seems to provide final proof of his degeneration from idealistic radical to authoritarian establishment curmudgeon. The reference in the title is to his now-infamous declaration that Labour’s breach of electoral law during the 2005 election campaign was justified inasmuch as it prevented a terrible counterfactual — a National government led by Don Brash — from coming to pass. I disagree with that argument on the grounds that the integrity of the democratic system as a whole is of greater importance than any particular electoral outcome, and I disagree with his argument regarding the Urewera 4 for the same reasons: the integrity of the justice system is of greater importance than the outcome of any given case.** But I don’t want to dwell on the personal; rather than trading extensive cannonades with Chris (again), I think there’s more value in covering my reasons for holding these views in principle, leaving aside the specific merits (on which we’re never going to agree), or whether I support the principals in either case.***
The first and most obvious argument against this sort of extra-legal recourse is: be careful what you wish for. If you want the Crown to leak, to cultivate sources in the media whom they can trust to run their propaganda for them, and to resort to whatever other means they might need to secure what you think is a “right” outcome, you’d better hope you always agree with them. If you don’t, eventually you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of it. The danger of this for the ideological left in Aotearoa should need little elaboration: almost all the authoritarian cards and most of the ruthlessness in playing them are in the hands of the various factions of the ideological right, and they are constrained more by norms of conduct and the need to appear to be less ruthless than they are than by black-letter law or constitutional barriers. These norms are quite robust, but they essentially all operate on the honour system: they persist because people observe them. If you break the law in the name of the rule of law, you erode the rule of law. If you destroy the village to save the village, you still destroy the village.
This leads into the second point: changing norms of Crown conduct, or what we might call “authoritarian sclerosis”. Norms that constrain what a government, the Crown or its agents may acceptably do are becoming more lax, and have been since shortly after 9/11, when the Terrorism Suppression Act that gave rise to the current farce was hastily passed. In the past two parliamentary terms this has continued to accelerate, partly as a consequence of hysteria around — and blurring of — activism and terrorism more generally. The government, by leave of an increasingly punitive and paranoid populace, can now impose disproportionate punishment on certain offenders via the “three strikes” regime, and indefinite “civil” detention of certain offenders. The infiltration of the security and intelligence apparatus into harmless activist groups such as those that agitate for animal rights has been well-documented in recent years. It has gotten to this point despite the fact that (Urewera case aside) the two most significant threats to our national security in the past decade have been an Algerian theologist who now makes kebabs in a food hall on Karangahape Road, and three Catholic pacifists with agricultural implements. The government can now amend or suspend almost any law or enact almost any measure it likes, with immediate effect and without meaningful judicial oversight, in the service of rebuilding Christchurch. There are laws on the books that shift the burden of proof of innocence for some types of copyright infringement from the accuser to the alleged offender. On US urging, the New Zealand police recently undertook expensive, unprecedented and legally risky operations against a foreign national who had apparently committed no serious crimes against New Zealand law, and it now seems increasingly unlikely that the case will amount to anything. The government may now spend beneficiaries’ money for them. They are are moving to require DPB mothers (and their daughters!) to use long-term birth control, and to force them to work when their youngest is just one year old. The latest proposal is to force beneficiaries to vaccinate their children, in violation of the fundamental right to refuse medical treatment. These latter policies of authoritarian sclerosis disproportionately affect Māori, who are already disproportionately impacted by the state’s historical use of its power via colonialism. I could go on, but you get the point: the door to the police state is not yet open, but it is creaking ajar. Those who benefit from opening it do not need agents of the left nudging that door wider for them, but they will gratefully accept it if some are willing to do so.
This is all bad enough in itself, but as well as eroding the norms of what is acceptable, authoritarian sclerosis makes it more difficult to erect robust black-letter or constitutional safeguards against undue exercise of power by the state over its citizens, making it more likely that the norms which are being undermined are all we will be able to rely on in future. Again: be careful what you wish for.
Perhaps more important than all of that, though, is the incentive that the Mulligan creates within the organs of the Crown responsible for implementing the policies outlined above. If you make excuses for underperforming or incompetent agencies, if you cut senior officials slack when they or their subordinates fail to discharge their duties adequately, when they bring into question the good standing of their departments; if you seek to tailor laws and regulations to them rather than requiring them to work within the existing bounds of proper conduct, then you produce agencies which are dependent on special pleading and special treatment. When you select against competence, independence, resourcefulness and strategic thinking by allowing “right-thinking” loyalty and patronage to thrive, you breed pampered inbred poodles reliant on favour from political masters, rather than vigilant, independent watchdogs of civil society.
Multiple layers of dysfunction contributed to the Crown’s failure to convict on substantive charges in the Urewera 4 case. They started with the drafting of the Terrorism Suppression Act, which Solicitor-General David Collins declared “unnecessarily complex, incoherent, and as a result almost impossible to apply”. Court interpretations giving the police permission to undertake surveillance operations that were later ruled illegal also contributed. Police culture and operational capability, and a lack of both strategic and tactical awareness also contributed strongly, and Crown Law’s failure to make best use of the meagre evidence that derived from those preceding actions was merely the last in a long chain of failures.
If you want to make a system stronger, the solution is to genuinely strengthen it, making it better, by having those agencies take their lumps and learn their lessons, by punishing failure and rewarding success; by staffing it with better people, better trained and with greater strategic vision. I want an intelligence/security and police apparatus and a justice system good enough that it doesn’t need to be oppressive to be effective. One that I can trust to keep society safe, and to not persecute me while doing so. That can’t happen if we erect a scaffold of legal or extra-legal privilege beneath the sagging edifice, pretend there’s nothing wrong, and call it a win. It didn’t work for the investment banks, and it can’t work here.
* Chief High Court Judge Randerson and Justice Gendall found that the publication had not “caused a real risk” of prejudice, so fair enough. But they also stated that “The breaches of suppression orders and the unlawful conduct of a major news organisation and a senior newspaper editor should have resulted in their prosecution” by the Police, and that the court was “at a loss to understand why these breaches were not prosecuted.” While they raised the point that the penalties for such breaches are risibly small, it’s also hard to avoid the conclusion that the Police were simply reluctant to punish actions that might have helped their case.
** In principle, there is a time for extrajudicial action, for exercise of the reserve powers or of the almost-limitless authority of the sovereign parliament, or for rebellion by the people. Desperate times may call for such measures. These are not such times.
*** For the record: Of course, I did not support the 2005 National party. I am satisfied with the Urewera 4 verdicts since they accord with what I know about the case, though I also would not have been averse to a retrial and an opportunity for them to clear their names more forcefully.
Posted on 20:51, December 14th, 2011 by Lew
For my sins, over the past week or so I have been engaging at The Standard again. It’s been a rather tiresome business (for them as well, I’m sure) but has yielded some lucid moments. One exchange between “Puddleglum”, Anthony and I in the bowels of an open mike thread has been particularly useful, and since it contains my views on a question I am often asked, I’d rather it not end up down the memory hole. I reproduce it here in full (without the benefit of editing; so it’s a bit rough).
[I originally said Anthony was the author FKA "r0b" at The Standard -- this isn't the case; it's some other Anthony. My mistake, and thanks to the r0b, Anthony Robins, for pointing it out.] Puddleglum has a blog himself — thepoliticalscientist.org — that is well worth reading.
If Armstrong is correct in the following quotation (and this leadership race has all been about the ‘blokes’ battling the ‘minorities’ and the ‘politically correct’), then won’t the election of Shearer shift Labour more towards the right wing, social conservatism that you appear not to like about NZF?
“Shearer will bring change by making the party less hostage to the political correctness that still plagues its image. He is interested in things that work, rather than whether they fit the party’s doctrine. “
I may misunderstand where your ‘loyalties’ or preferences lie, but it does seem odd if you are supporting a shift in Labour’s focus towards something that would be much more compatible with NZF (including Prosser and Peters, neither of whom strike me as staunch upholders of ‘political correctness’), given how little regard you appear to have for NZF.
(As an aside, I’m not sure why Armstrong is so sure he knows Shearer’s mind – he’s obviously heard Shearer say more than he’s been reported as saying – but I guess he is a political journalist … It would have been good to hear Shearer say these things to the public if, indeed, Armstrong has it from the horse’s mouth, as his tone strongly implies – “Shearer will …”, etc..).
I’m not convinced by this argument that Shearer represents the forthcoming defenestration of Māori, women, gays, the disabled, and so forth as a matter of doctrine, although folk who hope it does have been eager to say so — Armstrong, Audrey Young, Trotter amongst them. Shearer’s MSc was on the tension between Māori cultural values and environmental resource management, and he has worked on behalf of Māori in that field, preparing Tainui’s land claim to the Waitangi Tribunal and looking at sultural issues around wastewater treatment in Auckland. I have as yet seen no evidence that Shearer represents the social “right” of the party either. His pairing with Robertson as deputy certainly seems to counterindicate that argument. He says he’s “right in the middle” of Labour, though I suppose he would say that. I am open to persuasion on both these points, however, and if such defenestration does occur I may yet come to regret my support for Team Shearer.
But I think there’s also a misreading of my “loyalties”. The much-loved canard around here and at Trotter’s place is that I want Labour to be an “identity politics” party, whereas, in actuality, I want an end to the infighting that pits “the workers” against other marginalised groups or seeks to subsume everyone’s needs to those of straight white blue-collar blokes. All must have a presence within any progressive movement. I think there’s a false dichotomy that to appeal to “middle New Zealand” a party must be just a wee bit racist, homophobic and sexist, because that’s what “middle New Zealand” is. I don’t agree; although I can see how that is one route to popularity, I don’t think it’s one that’s very suitable for Labour.
Notwithstanding all of that I do think that being able to break the factionalisation and patronage — crudely expressed by Damien O’Connor — that has resulted in a weak list and a dysfunctional party apparatus is the most crucial task facing Shearer, and I can see how this could be spun against him. But on balance, getting the overall institutional and overall health of the party back on track is the priority. As long as it’s not simply replacing one lot of factions with another.
It’s just convincing insecure pricks like Armstrong that they’re not missing out (and normal people who are perfectly fine), while they lift everyone up.
Been one of the problems with the left for a while – not taking middle NZ with them in their thinking and just expecting them to “get it” after it’s done and dusted.
You can see how the Nats do it better with their policy formation and with the task forces they set up, they admit there is a problem that needs to be solved in some way, get a team of “experts” in place, get feedback from all quarters then create policy based on it (even if they were planning that policy all along). It’s a great way to create a narrative that the electorate can follow to understand policy or at least get some understanding that a problem that needs to be solved exists in the first place.
If it looks in the slightest way controversial or a potential wedge issue they will use this method.
I think previously you’ve noted the importance of symbolism (e.g., in the early days of the MP coalescing with National).
There is a danger that the symbolic projection being attempted (‘we are ordinary New Zealanders too’ – whatever that means) can box Labour in when it comes to ‘judgment calls’ on those social issues.
Trying to benefit electorally from symbols you don’t really believe in (in its crudest form, ‘dogwhistling’) can bite you back.
I think, for example, that Shearer may well be keen not to “get in front” of middle New Zealand on any of these issues (wasn’t that one of the concerns about Clark’s government, for ‘middle New Zealand’?).
That’s fine and pragmatic, and doesn’t mean necessarily being a little bit racist, homophobic, or whatever. But it might mean muting your commentary and positioning on those issues a tad.
And that could make some, at least, leap from the windows rather than waiting to be ‘defenestrated’.
I think that’s the challenge with the more ‘centrist’ positioning.
PG, I think that is the challenge with a more “centrist” positioning, but ultimately the long game is what matters. It’s mostly futile to try to campaign outright on unpopular topics — or those that are “in front” of popular thought, as you aptly put it — when you don’t control the agenda. Clark found out in 2004/5 when Brash hijacked the agenda at Orewa after a very progressive first term, and again in 2008 when the s59 repeal became a de facto government bill about the childless lesbians Helen Clark and Sue Bradford* wanting to personally bring up Waitakere Man’s kids.
I daresay there will be a lot of ideological austerity shared about over the coming term, not limited to the usual whipping children of progressive movements, but likely encompassing the unions and hard-left factions as well (and much of this may be pinned on Shearer to frame him as a “right” leader, when his hand may have been forced by political circumstance.) The project is to rebuild Labour as a political force, because if Labour continues to decline nobody — not Māori, not women, not the unions — is going to benefit.
Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. My major stipulation is that whatever gets nudged out onto the ledge, as it were, is done with due engagement and consideration of those it impacts, not simply decreed by the leadership as being “not a priority” (and if you disagree you’re a hater and a wrecker).
* Notwithstanding the fact that neither are lesbians, and Sue Bradford isn’t childless.
These things occurred to me while making my daughter’s birthday cake:*
Endorsement games continue, with a range of people from across the political spectrum still out for Shearer; including Goff’s erstwhile strategist John Pagani and that notorious Mooreite Phil Quin alongside the rest of us Tory plants. Meanwhile, David Cunliffe has the endorsement of the Young Nats, here and here. Cheap shots, but it is the Young Nats after all. When they’re not photoshopping your head onto a dictator they obviously have the hots for you.
This sudden and spontaneous outbreak of public-sphere democracy is sending Labourite dittoheads into a panic; they’re convinced it’s a trap — one so cunning they can’t see what the right has to gain from it, but it must be something. It’s like they’ve forgotten what they believe; they just read Farrar, Slater, Hooton and Odgers and believe the opposite. Tragic. Those guys are good and all, but they only have so much power because so much of the NZ left is stricken with paranoiac idiotosis.
Meanwhile Trevor Mallard has it all figured out: the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy decision to endorse Shearer is not a trick to ship Labour with an easybeat leader (or worse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing) — in fact it’s a double-bluff designed to give Labour second thoughts about choosing the obviously-best candidate. (Incidentally James Meager, formerly of the now-defunct Mydeology blog, called this on Thursday.) Someone should redo the poison scene from The Princess Bride with such rationalisations. It’s positively Kremlinesque; parallels to the well-documented phenomenon of impending-collapse paranoia within authoritarian regimes seem almost too obvious.
Nevertheless, amongst all the bogus objections, I think there are two legitimate concerns about Shearer’s potential leadership. The first I noted in the Close Up interview: his presentation is not strong. He ums, stutters and hesitates, speaks too softly and lacks cut-through. When he’s been put on the spot he has struggled. He is much better at the set-piece but that on its own is not enough. What he does have to say is often very good; he is a very perceptive listener and he has a pretty remarkable grasp on a wide range of issues. (There’s a comprehensive archive of his weekly in-depth interviews with interesting and important people on the radio here.) That having been said, our present PM is akshully not the world’s greatest public speaker, and the public may view a less-polished performance as a common touch. Whatever the case, this weakness can be overcome by training; presentation is one of the few things in politics that can really be taught. Key and Clark are both great examples.
(Incidentally, it amuses me greatly to see folk who’ve always been focused on wonkish detail and hard policy, to the stern exclusion of doing anything that might win elections, now complaining about a candidate on the grounds that he talks a bit funny.)
The second objection is a bit more substantive, and was raised separately by Anita and by Chris Trotter, and also by Audrey Young: Shearer is reputedly aligned with Damien “gaggle of gays” O’Connor, and perhaps other members of what I have previously termed the blue collars, red necks faction of Labour. Because of this, Young suggests, a Shearer-led Labour will be “a more pragmatic party, with less emphasis on gays and feminists”, or as others might say, he might mean the end of identity politics. Leaving aside the offensive dichotomy between pragmatism and support for equal rights, I don’t think this necessarily follows. O’Connor’s views as expressed in his infamous “gaggle of gays” comment were somewhat archaic, but it’s not clear they will greatly shape the party’s culture. In addition, O’Connor has a point: homophobia aside, his critique of the faction politics of the Labour party has some merit (he also criticised “self-serving unionists”, Trotter’s latest target). Absent any indication that Shearer himself shares O’Connor’s unreconstructed views I think it’s a long bow to draw. Even so, I think the priority for Labour now is sorting its institutions out, and that will mean deemphasising some other projects. I can see this being a touchstone issue for some people; vive la difference.
Lastly, what we have before us is a Labour leadership candidate that can be supported by the right-wingers and former strategists noted above, Sanctuary, AK, myself and presumably because of his potential appeal to Waitakere Man and supposed opposition to identity politics, Comrade Trotter. A person like that doesn’t come along very often.
* Huhu grub cake made of rolled lemon sponge filled with fresh cream and bush honey, lemon cream cheese icing. Yeah, colonial-bourgeois Kiwiana is how we postmodern Gen-X long-spoon suppers roll.
I recently tore into Chris Trotter’s argument that polls are deployed to promote a “spiral of silence”, to demoralise those holding non-majority views, and to deter them from political speech and action. I stand by that post, and I still don’t think the argument holds in the general case, but this morning I think we saw an example where polling data was used in just such a way.
National campaign chair Steven Joyce appeared on Morning Report defending the party’s handling of the “teapot tapes” strategy. Joyce came to his Morning Report interview armed with overnight polling data that he says shows 81% of people are sick of the coverage of the teapot tapes, only 13% think the issue is a big deal, and that some in the media ought to take a long, hard look at themselves. Russell Brown covers the topic in more detail; this post began as a comment there).
Leaving aside questions about the veracity of these figures (they could be utterly fabricated and we’d be none the wiser; Bomber reckons they’re bollocks), this actually is a case of a politician deploying polling data to send a message, not only to the media, but to the public: If you care about this you’re out of touch, disconnected, in the minority, obsessed with trivia, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. While I disagree with his assessment, what’s more interesting is how he framed that assessment: as a normative argument about what election campaigns ought to be about, and what “real New Zealanders” care about; echoing John Key’s “issues that really matter” rhetoric, which is precisely what all the National supporters I’m in touch with have been saying: nothing to see here, it’s a sideshow, can we get back to the substance, and all that.
Which is pretty ironic given that the Nats have done extremely well for most of the preceding five years by staying the hell away from policy arguments wherever possible. It’s a pretty remarkable position from a National party whose strategic success has been largely founded on a ruthless commitment to campaign realism, expressed by avoiding “noble” pursuits such as the robust policy focus and appearances in the hard-news media in favour of what is effective — personality and brand-focused campaigns, point-scoring, agenda domination, and routine appearances in sympathetic forums, for example. It’s even more remarkable since Joyce himself has been the architect of this strategy since the 2008 campaign.
So I am cynical about National’s sudden love for the “real issues”. They have touched on them before — the election-year launch of the privatisation policy that I wrote about in February is the best recent example — but this has hardly been their preferred route. What seems more likely is the “spiral of silence” imperative — marginalise, shame and heap scorn upon those who genuinely see a substantial public interest in the way the teapot tapes episode has played out, not out of a prurient interest in the contents of those tapes but because — as Danyl notes, it “keys into a huge range of really substantive issues: the Prime Minister’s integrity; media ethics; surveillance”. This deployment of normally-secret polling data — probably collected for this exact purpose using carefully-framed questions — seems like an attempt to bully into silence those who aren’t willing to ignore an unprecedented breakdown in the relationship between the Prime Minister and the media, and a nearly-unprecedented glimpse into the internal workings and political culture of the National party and its leader.
It has had the desired effect on other political parties — Phil Goff and Peter Dunne have sung from the same songsheet today, leaving only Winston Peters to reap the electoral harvest from these events. Given that, it is not unlikely that it would have a similar effect on voters, especially in Epsom. Of course, there may not be an electoral harvest; the polling data might be accurate and it may genuinely be perceived as a “Bowen Triangle” sideshow. I don’t think so, but then, I would say that.
Update: Since writing this, Fairfax has released a poll of their own that suggests the public are over the teapot tapes. Its numbers are considerably more ambivalent than those released by Steven Joyce, however; the strongest result was for the obviously-correct proposition that politicians should be able to discuss controversial topics privately (63%). On this basis Matthew Hooton is now praising the strategy as “genius”. It’s also important to realise that this isn’t a pure popularity contest, but a balance of complex factors — the intensity of sentiment on either side matters. As Danyl remarked in the Public Address thread, “If 4% of National supporters switch their vote over to Winston Peters on the basis of this affair, then that’s a strategic catastrophe for Joyce’s party, no matter what the other 96% do.” There’s no indication that this has happened, of course, but there’s no really definitive indication of the fallout from these events at all. The Herald on Sunday tomorrow will be fascinating.
Chris Trotter suggests that frequent and heavily-publicised polls favour the right and result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, depressing support for the left. Bomber Bradbury has made similar arguments in the past.
There are two parts to this: first, the question of whether polls are inaccurate vis-a-vis the actual views of the electorate, and if so whether they do in fact favour the right; and second, whether this, on its own, has a substantive impact on actual real-world support.
I am aware of no robust research on this topic in the NZ context (which isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist; although if it did I’d expect the many proponents of this line of argument to be citing it all day long.) So to kick off, let me concede that if there was a significant ideological bias to the polls it certainly could have an impact on voter behaviour. But I suspect any impact would be more complicated than the simple “low showing for a party causes low turnout and/or low support” reading of the “spiral of silence” model Chris cites (which is nevertheless a useful model). For one thing, it’s not clear that the impact is very strong in case of a secret ballot; also, the argument doesn’t take into account New Zealanders’ oft-cited peeriness about single-party majority governments in the wake of Muldoon, Lange and Bolger which could have a moderating effect, and it doesn’t take into consideration the usual “narrowing” that occurs in the latter stages of an election campaign as wavering voters begin to make up their minds. So I doubt the size of this effect on Labour’s polling at least; any shift should not be large, and certainly not sufficient to change the election outcome. However where NZ First is concerned it’s different — a percentage point or two makes all the difference in the world there, and whether NZ First returns to parliament or not rests on the collective spirit of Winston’s faithful. Assuming they still make up fiveish per cent of the voting population they must not waver, and must cast their votes together regardless of what they are told about the polls. If they fail to do so NZ First is out, and all those votes are wasted, and that is certainly an outcome that could result from widespread reporting of polls that show NZ First under the threshold (and one that could change the election outcome).
Note, however, that all that is contingent on those polls showing NZ First to be under the threshold actually being wrong. I’m not persuaded of this, and I’m also dubious about the contention that polls favour the right. As Bomber is fond of pointing out, the polls run in the leadup to the Auckland Supercity election favoured John Banks, while in the election Len Brown won handsomely. That’s important to remember, but it’s only one data point so I’m hesitant to draw meaningful conclusions from it, and if it’s evidence of anything, it’s against the simple reading of the “Spiral of Silence” thesis, according to which Brown’s demoralised supporters should have stayed home.
There is also some evidence out of the US to suggest that landline-only polls favour the Republican party over the Democrats (when compared to polling samples that include cellphones). It’s not clear is that this trend is also in effect in New Zealand. Based on no data, I think it has some influence, but our situation here differs in important ways; most notably, we have more than two parties so variance of this sort is more dilute and less zero-sum. And the likely effect would be ambivalent — if landline-only polls tend to exclude the young and the poor and tech-savvy urban liberals, they should overstate support for NZ First, not understate it.
The matter of bias isn’t readily testable because, as an Australian poll analyst put it recently when looking at bias between pollsters in that market, “we just don’t have elections every week to determine the true state of public opinion“.* There is also evidence to suggest that people’s voting behaviour differs in important ways from how they answer opinion polls. So we need to rely on other forms of measurement; proxies being measured against proxies. There are focus-groups, vox pop interviews and 75c text-polls and coffee-bean polls, and the Horizon poll with its radically different weighting system, but I see no firm grounds to believe any of these would be any more reliable than the major phone poll companies. One very strong point in favour of the usual sort of phone-based opinion polling is that it has remained more or less methodologically consistent for a very long time. This gives us extremely large, continuous datasets that we can plot against real-world events including policy releases, major speeches, current events and elections. In this regard they are much like audience/circulation ratings in the media. The utility of these well-established systems isn’t that they have no flaws — they certainly do, and much of the criticism is valid — it’s that they have a reasonably well-known set of flaws that are consistent over time, and we can use the historical record to make inferences about the present day (too few people, I think, are actually doing this, but that’s a different matter). By contrast other systems — Horizon, in particular — are less well-known, and serious questions need to be asked about the quality of their results. They’re worth watching, but they are not as yet a substitute for what we already have.
Returning to the argument. So if the polls systematically favour the right, and if they do so in such a way as doesn’t also favour NZ First’s older, wealthier and more conservative demographic, and if the extent of that bias is significant enough to have a significant zero-sum election night impact despite all the confounding variables of voter behaviour, then Chris might be right.
But that’s a lot of ifs, and a claim as bold as “polling companies and the media steal elections from the left” demands extremely robust evidence to be given credence. I’m open to the argument, but what we have here isn’t evidence, much less the robust kind; it’s supposition, and what’s more it’s supposition derived from partisan loyalty. The argument is unfalsifiable — if the election does deliver a substantial defeat to Labour and NZ First they will take that as proof-positive that they were right all along and the voters were robbed; if it doesn’t no doubt they will cheer those who battled valiantly and overcame the oppressive regime imposed by the forces of evil. In this regard the argument is nearly indistinguishable from that made in 2008 by the Free Speech Coalition who, despite their howls about Stalinist restrictions on political marketing, managed to help their political representatives to a handy win.
My view of Chris and Bomber’s general line of argument is that it’s more of the usual excuse-making and blame-shifting that I see from lefties who can’t bear that their tribe is staring down the barrel of a(nother) heavy defeat. It’s an attempt to make the evil media cabal responsible for poor performance, and to minimise the effect of weak leadership, institutional incompetence, lacklustre campaign and — in Peters’ case — public self-immolation during the last term. It’s a myth; something to keep the faithful warm at night, in the absence of actual victory. Myths certainly have a kernel of essential truth, but they should not be mistaken for evidence. Moreover, as regards Chris’ concerns about the election accurately reflecting voters’ wishes; these would have more credibility if his own history of respecting the solemn integrity of electoral politics was itself less one-eyed. He thunders:
This would ring less hollow if, following the 2005 election, he had not so cravenly excused the Labour party’s own admitted breach of electoral law as being “acceptable corruption” inasmuch as it served the greater ideological purpose of preventing National from being elected. Given that history, his complaints about polling and media conduct look like nothing more than an appeal to ideological tribalism with a bright red smear of electoral integrity lipstick on.
And yet, he has a strong point: if NZ First’s share of the party vote on November 26 comes in fractionally below the 5% threshold, democracy will have been poorly served in 2011, as it was in 2008. My personal views of that party aside, as a matter of natural justice anyone commanding a twentieth of the vote should be entitled to roughly a twentieth of the representation in Parliament. But however unsexy it might be, the solution to this isn’t injustice to attack the pollsters or the media. The argument isn’t supported by the evidence; even if it was nobody’s going to change on Chris and Bomber’s say-so, and we all saw what happened to the Clark government’s regulatory overreach. The pragmatic response here is to work towards reducing or removing the electoral threshold so as to ensure that natural justice is served and variance is less likely to simply exclude a party from representation, and to turn back to the process of returning political rigour to the political left by building competence, vision and leadership so it can succeed despite the obstacles before it. Less myth, more reality.
* Pollytics’ analysis plots polling companies against each other, measuring each pollster’s bias from the other polling companies. David Winter has had a go at doing something similar for the NZ context, though he has much less data to work with. While interesting, it’s important to reiterate that none of this addresses the concerns about poll accuracy vis-a-vis the electorate.)