Posts Tagged ‘Election 2011’

Competing electoral insurgencies, in Epsom and beyond

datePosted on 10:48, July 21st, 2011 by Lew

In this post I argue that ACT’s apparent willingness to undermine the MMP system that has kept them alive isn’t so much a death wish as a wish to be welcomed back into the National party as a faction, rather than a stand-alone party; to ensure influence from within rather than relying on influence without. I wrote most of this late at night and cobbled it together from several pieces I’ve had banging around a while with some more recent stuff appended, so you have my apologies if it’s a bit disjointed.

Fairfax political journalists Andrea Vance & John Hartevelt have a pretty sharp piece up, calling the ACT-National deal in Epsom a shameless power grab. I wrote about this topic a few days ago. Their analysis is pretty good, particularly the argument that National may have difficulty compartmentalising future ACT scandals away from National, having taken such direct responsibility for shielding ACT from the rigours of electoral democracy. They also make the point that I and many others have made about the dual exploitation-illustration of MMP’s flaws:

Double dealing and horse-trading are nothing new in the battle for political survival. Perversely, as we head towards a referendum, this naked and shameless power grab undermines the very system ACT relies on for survival. The ultimate irony is that Brash wants it replaced with the supplementary member system that would probably vanquish his party.

MMP, and particularly exploitation of the free-rider rule, is what has kept ACT alive since the 2005 election, when the party’s support dipped to its record low of 1.5%. Supplementary Member is the system that Brash personally supports, and although there is no official preference, this is widely regarded as being the system most preferable to most National party members and the wider ACT party also. SM, as proposed with a 90-30 electorate-list split, would indeed be worse for ACT as an independent party, requiring it to get something like 3% 2% of the party vote to gain a list seat, even if it continued to win an electorate. Leaving aside for a moment whether this is likely or not (ACT did, in its heyday, poll well), that’s a considerable disadvantage because National would no longer have such a good reason to throw ACT an electorate seat lifeline. National’s doing so is apparently only tolerated by Epsom voters on the basis of the overall positive-sum value proposition made by John Banks: “vote for me, and I’ll bring five MPs with me on current polling”. You’d be a fool to turn that offer down. Reduce the premium to one MP and it suddenly becomes rather less appealing.

So on paper ACT supporting a non-MMP system looks like a turkey voting for an early Christmas. But I think the game goes deeper than that. ACT has in recent years abandoned its claims to being a classical liberal party, and is now basically a more hardline version of National’s dry petit-authoritarian conservatism, with a few casual nods to “freedom”, such as in alcohol policy. In recent months it has been colonised by the former right of the National party (Brash and Banks, most notably; also “National in Gumboots” Federated Farmers former president Don Nicolson). Both the former were until very recently long-standing National members whose tribal loyalty undoubtedly lies with that party. They see it as having strayed from its roots, and while they undoubtedly appreciate its newfound popularity with voters, they have repeatedly expressed strong concerns that the party has lost its way, and an intention to bring it back around by putting “reinforcing steel” into its governments (in the words of John Banks). Both, I think, would join National again in a heartbeat if National would have them, and would permit them any influence. An electoral system switch to SM makes that a more viable possibility, and brazenly exploiting both the two major flaws to which most people object in MMP — the threshold free-rider rule and the “back door” rule that lets a rejected candidate such as Don Brash back in on the list — sets up a reasonably strong case against MMP.

Supplementary Member has the worst features of both FPP and MMP. It has high noise (the variance between the makeup of the electorate’s votes and the makeup of the resultant parliament), delivers huge incumbency advantages to parties that hold many electorate seats (because there are more of them), severely marginalises smaller parties by reducing proportionality, and despite all this does not meaningfully solve the symbolic split between “legitimate” electorate-based MPs and those who ‘only’ come in on the list, nor the threshold, “back door” or “horse-trading” objections that most critics name as MMP’s worst flaws. (BK Drinkwater modeled FPP, MMP and SM against each other using election data since 1996, although bear in mind that for SM, these figures assume a 70-50 electorate-list split, which is considerably more proportionate than the 90-30 proposed).

National holds many more electorate seats than Labour, and has nearly always done so, even when its popular vote has been lower because its base of support is less concentrated in inner-city and suburban electorates. Any system of reapportioning electorates on the basis of population will continue to entrench this advantage. Under MMP, it is not a very significant advantage; under FPP and SM, however, it is. ACT’s electoral support, both in electorates and nationally, is very weak, largely because their policies are purposefully divisive, with the intent of galvanising a small proportion of “right thinking” voters against the mainstream. National’s strategy since 2006 has been to occupy the centre-ground and cannibalise Labour’s votes in a zero-sum fashion. This has been a strategy of necessity — the 2005 election demonstrated pretty categorically that divisive politics, no matter how much money you could throw at it, no matter how favourable the cultural terrain, or how good the propaganda, was not a winner for National in an MMP environment. The incumbency and electorate edvantage delivered by SM, however, would cushion them against voter discontent and permit a more hardline approach: one that included ACT as a faction within the National party, as it previously was. So under SM, ACT doesn’t need National to throw it a bone, and National doesn’t need to rort the system to extract electoral advantage: National under SM will enjoy sufficient advantage to simply absorb ACT and its policy programme, and its governments will be emboldened to enact divisive or unpopular aspects of that programme without the same fear of electoral blowback that now constrains it. ACT’s strategy is therefore an insurgency against National; one that may be permitted by National, contingent upon the adoption of a more beneficial electoral system.

A further comment on Labour’s response in Epsom is also warranted. Arthur (in comments to my post linked above) suggested that the best way to nix ACT in the 2011 election is for all Labour and Green voters to cast electorate votes for the National candidate, Paul Goldsmith, in the hope that this will send a signal to National voters who are unhappy with the horse-trading between ACT and National that it might be worth defecting. This is, in principle, a strong strategy, and it has been picked up by some Green supporters as well. But I think it’s the wrong strategy in this case, for five reasons. First, it’s a complex and counterintuitive strategy, and it’s extremely hard to get so many people (on both sides) to act against their own instincts like that. Second, the value proposition made by ACT (six for the price of one) is simply too good for a meaningful number of National voters to pass up. Third, it would require Labour to publicly endorse a National candidate, which would permit John Key to proclaim that “even the opposition supports the National party”. Fourth, the electorate demographics for Epsom don’t stack up: this electorate bleeds blue and even if a fair proportion of disgruntled Nat voters defected, I don’t think there would be enough Green and Labour voters to prevail. Fifth, it would require Labour to buy into the electoral-system rorting, making them no better than the National and ACT parties.

Labour looks like it will mount an ‘economic dry’ insurgency by standing David Parker in Epsom. This is a better strategy because it is vulnerable only to the objections two and four above (the positive-sum value proposition, and demographics). These will probably still mean that it is unsuccessful in terms of winning Labour the electorate and denying ACT parliamentary representation, but it also has the advantages of fighting the national and ACT parties on their own turf — economic responsibility — and in demonstrating that even when they’re down, Labour fights fair and respects the integrity of the electoral system. Most crucially, however, whatever strategy is adopted by the left in Epsom must be coordinated. The two proposed strategies (vote Goldsmith and vote Parker) are contradictory: one must be abandoned, and soon, in favour of the other. Because if the Green faction goes into Epsom with one strategy and the Labour faction goes in with another, there’s only one winner: ACT.

L

Rotten borough

datePosted on 22:39, July 18th, 2011 by Lew

This evening Paul Goldsmith won the Epsom candidacy for the National party. Goldsmith is was until 2010 a Citizens & Ratepayers Auckland city councillor, and has a long-standing National party affiliation.

He will be standing against ACT candidate John Banks, who is the subject of a hagiography by Goldsmith titled “John Banks: A Biography” and published a few years before Banks stood for his first term as Auckland mayor, which he won in 2001.

ACT is led by Don Brash, who is the subject of a similar tome — I haven’t read this one, so I will refrain from calling it a hagiography in such specific terms — titled “Brash: A Biography”, also by Goldsmith and published as Brash was whipping up race hatred as leader of the National party in order to win the 2005 general election, which he did not.

So unless someone can explain to me again how National is going to contest Epsom strongly by standing the hagiographer against his subjects, this is simply a renewal of the Hide-Worth electoral rort, where a nod and a wink permits National to elect Banks and exploit the free-rider loophole in MMP; all the while campaigning against MMP due to flaws such as the free-rider rule, and the ‘back door’ rule which will in all likelihood get Don Brash back into parliament despite his having been rejected in 2005 — not only by an electorate, but by the whole nation as leader of a failed National party bid for government.

And fair play to them. If the electorate won’t punish them for doing so they’d be rude not to.

L

Under fire

datePosted on 22:52, July 10th, 2011 by Lew

Just one semi-randomly chosen article, on the Otago Daily Times website, but here are some numbers from it:

A. Don Brash denying allegations or refusing to comment: 4
B. Don Brash distancing himself from views of senior ACT people (incl former): 4
C. Mentions of Don Brash’s failed 2005 campaign: 3
D. Don Brash making an open statement of his position (incl the ad): 2
E. Don Brash attacked by ministers in the government of which ACT is a part: 2
F. Don Brash attacking ministers in the government of which ACT is a part: 1

That, right there, is a party leader under fire.

A is a problem because it shows Brash as weak and evasive.
B is a problem because the fact is that these people are or were his party and its brand — they are what people think they know about ACT. If it turns out they don’t actually speak for ACT, something has to fill that vacuum. This is also indecisive, and because of the nature of the views he is backing away from, weak.
C is a problem because it reminds everyone that they got rid of him six years ago, and why.
D is a problem because Brash hasn’t filled the vacuum caused by B.
E and F are problems because they threaten the integrity of John Key’s National government during an election campaign framed by narratives of unity: the Stadium Of Four Million narrative of the Rugby World Cup, and the Spirit Of The Blitz narrative mandated by the Canterbury earthquakes.

For my money, it’s the last one which is most likely to sink ACT. If Brash doesn’t pull his head in sharpish, Key will be justified in cutting it off. And I reckon he would, sharpish. He’s not called the Smiling Assassin because of his gentle nature and tolerance toward poor performers. And even if Key doesn’t, Brash is up against some powerful stuff in those unity narratives. Nobody wants to back a splitter at a time when Aotearoa is supposed to be thinking and feeling and hoping as one.

L

Capital punishment

datePosted on 09:23, July 6th, 2011 by Lew

Do yourselves a favour and listen to this morning’s debate between Chris Trotter and Deborah Coddington on Morning Report. This is (or ought to be) the agenda for this year’s election, and this is (or ought to be) how the national debate runs.

The leak of Labour’s purported capital gains tax (by former One News deputy political editor Fran Mold, now Labour press secretary, to her former colleague Guyon Espiner) is undoubtedly Labour’s play of the year to date. It takes an issue of great public interest and thrusts it into the national debate at a time when the electorate is preoccupied with less directly political considerations. As Maxwell McCombs famously said, what the voters think isn’t as relevant as what they think about, and this is a great example of taking the initiative and giving the electorate something to think about.

But not just the electorate. Everyone is thinking about this, because it is — finally — a genuine flagship policy from Labour. John Key’s comments on the topic take up two-thirds of the Vernon Small’s Stuff article yesterday. The property investment lobby are predictably livid about it. David Farrar has come out swinging, despite having been cautiously supportive of considering a CGT earlier in the term. Deborah Coddington, in the linked discussion above, saw fit to analogise CGT to child prostitution laws. Seriously.

The announcement has riled ’em, and it’s not even official yet. They’re scaremongering furiously, and if Labour have an ounce of sense the pitch of the official policy announcement (tomorrow next Thursday) will be to allay the worst of these fears. It should be framed as “redirecting investment to more productive sectors in theeconomy” and “paying our fair share”, with Phil Goff and Labour MPs (many of whom own investment properties) laying down a challenge to others: “we’re prepared to suffer a bit for the good of the rest of the country: are you?”

And then there’s the class-consciousness, demographic wedge, which Chris Trotter got pitch-perfect: property speculators are “landlords”, and the object isn’t to win back disgruntled National voters, but to engage the 20%+ of the electorate who didn’t vote last time because they felt none of the parties spoke for them, and the thousands of people who were too young to cast a vote in 2008 and are now even further from the possibility of home ownership because even the worst recession in half a century has failed to bring sanity to real estate markets.

This is positive-sum, strategically sound and tactically smart politics. Now what remains to be seen is whether Labour can win the battle of ideas over it.

L

In which I endorse Cactus Kate’s ACT candidacy

datePosted on 20:56, June 25th, 2011 by Lew

I’ve just gone through my post archive and added the tag ‘open government’ to posts I’ve written on the topic of elected or senior civil society representatives telling their constituents what they really think. I think this sort of disclosure is essential to democratic politics, and as much as I might disagree with the sentiments many such representatives express, my gratitude to them for their candour is entirely genuine.

It is in this vein that I endorse the rumoured candidacy of Cathy Odgers, aka Cactus Kate, for the ACT party in the forthcoming general election. If true, Odgers will be doing Aotearoa a genuine service, showing us all what ACT really stands for. She has never been backwards about coming forwards, and her often outrageous opinions have routinely appeared on her blog. Consequently, we can be assured of what we’re getting.

What we’re getting is someone who represents the elites; those who, if they weren’t born in possession of a silver spoon, quickly set about acquiring one by any means necessary. Hers is a devil-take-the-hindmost sort of social Darwinism which evinces general scorn for ordinary people, and outright contempt for anyone who fails to succeed by her own materialistic standards. She is perfectly frank about her view that only the wealthy net taxpayers should be able to vote, that ‘DPB’ should stand for ‘don’t pay breeders‘, and a host of other repugnant views which should further alienate her and her party from the New Zealand electorate; and which should increase the risk to a second-term Key government if it chooses to associate itself with the new ACT. We can only hope she will remain as candid as a candidate.

But this endorsement isn’t all about foreshadowed electoral schadenfreude. Odgers, for all that I disagree with nearly every aspect of her politics, is intelligent, articulate and possessed of a sharp and analytical wit. By reputation she is driven, hard-working and will not tolerate time-wasters or time-servers. If her boasts about the expat lifestyle and her drinking habits are to be believed, she will be taking a considerable cut in pay and increase in workload if elected to parliament, so we might reasonably assume her intentions are genuine. In other words, aside from her politics — which is admittedly a very big aside — she’s just the sort of person we need more of in Parliament. It may be that the rigours of public office mellow her, or it may be that her prickly public persona hides one more rounded and reasoned. They often do.

L

Primary thoughts on Te Mana

datePosted on 06:33, May 25th, 2011 by Lew

My thoughts on Te Mana aren’t very mature — they are very mixed, and quite primary, and I’m afraid I’m not very well informed. I’ve also been insanely busy the past few months — and especially the past month, and have had little time to focus on it. But last week I received a request by email from a regular KP commenter to post my thoughts on Te Mana, and what follows is a somewhat expanded edit of the reply I sent to him.

The initial comments suggested concern that Te Mana might be “opportunistically” taken over by the Pākehā “far left”, and I do agree that Te Mana needs to be Māori-led, and its functions need to be safeguarded against hijack by the usual bandwagon-jumpers — among whom I include folk like John Minto, Socialist Aotearoa and so on. The māori party, I think it’s now pretty clear, has been significantly colonised by Pākehā interests on the right, and if Te Mana is to prove any more robust, it must insure itself against the same happening from the other side. As a minor party, above all it needs to have focus and discipline, and too many chiefs (as it were) will lead to factionalisation, and that’s to everyone’s detriment. I’m not opposed to diversity within a movement, but I am against the leaders of one noisy faction taking over a movement for their own ends. That’s the major risk I see from people like John Minto and the principals of Socialist Aotearoa taking a prominent role: their vision isn’t the same as Hone’s, and although I expect they understand that, I’m certain the rank and file they command do not. Moreover, I think they’re a liability — even more than Hone is a liability, if possible — because they will turn off Māori as well as non-socialist Pākehā. That’s as far as my reasoned thoughts on the party’s internal dynamics go, and I welcome comment from anyone better informed on this topic than I am.

As far as where the party sits within NZ’s wider political context I think I have a better handle on things. The conventional wisdom about ACT and Te Mana engaging in a bit of mutual base-engagement is pretty good, but still a sideshow. The main event is (as ever) between National and Labour, and Te Mana’s relevance here rests on four main points.

First, Te Mana, with Hone likely to win Te Tai Tokerau, should be self-sustaining, at least for now. It needs to stand tall in the by-election to prove to people that they should support it in the general election. As far as Te Mana’s brand goes, the establishment Left distancing themselves is not really a bad thing (much more on this later). Te Mana needs to attract disenchanted māori party voters, and those who can’t be bothered voting for those parties. Its constituency needs to be positive-sum to as great an extent as possible, because the existing electoral offerings are broadly zero-sum.

Second, this is the establishment Left’s opportunity to say “for the past decade and a bit, National have been scaremongering about how we’re loony fringe extremists; socialists, communists, environmentalist haters of humanity, run by anti-family lesbians and all that — now Aotearoa gets to see what a real radical left party looks like.” The truth is that the Greens are perfectly moderate and gentle, and Labour are so ferociously orthodox they pose no meaningful threat to the established order of things, and Te Mana gives them a chance to illustrate that.

Third, and further to the second point, Te Mana provides Labour a crucial opportunity to differentiate from National. While historically the right has taken great glee in painting the Greens as the left’s equivalent of ACT, this is bogus. ACT is a genuine extremist party, espousing positions abhorrent even to many right-wingers, whose electoral existence in New Zealand relies upon them gaming the MMP threshold exemption because for most of the past decade they have been unable to persuade even one in 20 voters to support them. The Greens, on the other hand, represent a global movement whose positions and support are becoming more, not less, mainstream, and while not exactly rocketing skyward, their support remains strong and is steadily climbing. As much as the right wishes to claim the Greens are ACT’s left-wing equivalent, it is Te Mana who more appropriately fills that role. John Key was swift to label ACT and Don Brash ‘extremist’. He’s right, but he’s also protecting National’s voter base. This was tactically smart but strategically foolish, because Labour now get to label Te Mana as ‘extremist’ (‘radical’ is more correct, but that’s a technicality) and then say “National are working with the guy they admit is an extremist — we’re ruling out working with the extremist Mana Party. We’ve been telling you this whole term that John Key is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and now he’s proven it.” They’ve done the first bit and I can only hope they have a plan to do the second bit, reclaiming the boring harmless sensible moderate ground they so richly deserve to hold.

Fourth (this wasn’t included in the email but is something I’ve argued elsewhere): while many people have pointed out that the by-election will cost money, which the three parties contesting it don’t have much of, by the same token it gives those parties an opportunity to go into the general election with a bit of momentum. It will give them a fair bit of media exposure (not all of which will be favourable), an opportunity to field-test their lines and positions. Most importantly, it will give the people involved — the candidates themselves, and the campaign managers and organisers and doorknockers and drivers and ringawera — valuable frontline experience. Falling into a rugby analogy: it gives the parties a chance to build match-fitness for the main event which follows.

Finally, I think the best outcome for both Labour and Te Mana here is the one Morgan has persuasively argued is most likely — for Hone Harawira to beat Kelvin Davis by a slim margin. Davis is a strong MP, if inexperienced, and although marginally placed at 33 on the list, should get in at the general election if Labour can at least maintain their polling. A tight contest will light a fire under both parties, which is valuable in and of itself. Hone Harawira has remained mostly true to his principles, undoubtedly represents a constituency and thus possesses at least a moral mandate to represent those who vote for him; Davis, also, but those principles are also represented by the Labour party. Hone would (on present polling of about 3%) bring in a couple of others, who would be in a position to advocate radical positions and apply pressure to the māori, Labour and Green parties while permitting Labour and Green to solidify their claim to the middle-ground, and would give the parties of the left an opportunity to feel each other out and reposition. More to the point, in terms of November 27 realpolitik, the lesson of NZ First in 2008 should be clear: if Hone doesn’t win his electorate and Te Mana doesn’t pass 5%, those votes are wasted, and National will be the main beneficiary. Labour’s future — in 2012 as it was in the past — is not to go it alone as the all-singing, all-dancing united left party, but at the core of a wider movement including the diverse and often misguided voices which characterise the wider left. Those horses (as has been exhaustively demonstrated by the NewLabour, Alliance and Progressive parties) cannot be bound by the same rope, and sometimes must be given their head.

L

Double-tracking

datePosted on 12:24, March 3rd, 2011 by Lew

Danyl Mclauchlan posits a conspiracy theory:

there is a pretty great opportunity to use the Maori seats to rort the system: if you had two Maori Parties, one that ran electoral candidates in six out of the seven electorates and only canvased for electorate votes, and another that had a safe seat in the seventh electorate and only canvased for party list votes in the other regions then you could, conceivably, end up with a dozen MPs (albeit with some overhang due to your electorate imbalance) and hold the balance of power in perpetuity.

Danyl’s scheme is essentially what the Greens tentatively proposed before the last election: green voters in Māori electorates consider casting electorate votes for the māori party candidate, and māori party voters cast their party vote for the Greens. The proposal was rejected by the māori party, which at the time was (in my view) a tactical error but a wise strategic choice.

It was a tactical error because of the efficiency argument (a positive-sum alliance permitting the two parties to extract more parliamentary representation from the same base of electoral support). But without the benefit of hindsight it was a good strategic move because the māori party’s whole point was not to be shackled to the ‘Pākehā’ parties, and its long-term survival still likely depends on its establishing its own persistent powerbase; one which could stand a chance of surviving even the abolition of the Māori seats. The only way to do that is to grow the party vote by strengthening ‘brand’ support among its electorate. (Also the proposal was made quite late in the campaign, and the potential for voter confusion was high.)

Those factors which made the plan a strong strategic risk for the māori party in 2008 now no longer obtain, or at least not so strongly. It has largely sacrificed its independence from the Pākehā political mainstream anyway, and could potentially lose considerable support for that reason. It may hang onto electorates, but it is likely that ‘brand’ support is lower than before. So with the benefit of hingsight, they might as well have gone with the Greens last time. Nowadays, they have a radical wing-man in Hone, who will work with them and who shares, despite all the rhetorical ructions, considerable common ground with the party’s other members and its foundational kaupapa. They can work together; Hone working to attract the ‘brand’ support for an independent indigenous party, the existing māori party maintaining their electorate positions and continuing to work within the mainstream.

I’m not convinced this will happen — as the Richards say in comments to Danyl’s post, a lot of it is personality-bound — but it could work in principle.

There’s one other factor, though. Although ACT and National have been collaborating in this way since Rodney Hide was gifted Epsom, the moment the māori party and a new radical wing led by Hone start doing it, the headline will be “Maaries rorting democracy to establish an apartheid state”. Those who’ve been benefiting from this sort of positive-sum electoral coordination for years will be those most urgently banging that drum and waving those banners. That’s a powerful disincentive.

Edit to add: Of course, there’s also a referendum on MMP on the day of the election. A scheme such as this would be an outstanding means of undermining MMP’s popular support and endangering its future.

L

The three cities of Christchurch

datePosted on 12:59, March 2nd, 2011 by Lew

As local context and in contrast to my recent posts on the media response to the Christchurch earthquake, you must read this arresting report from Christchurch resident Peter Hyde. It is long, but the following facts are crucial:

There are THREE cities in Christchurch right now, not one.
RESCUE CITY is inside the four main avenues, and it is cordoned off. That means almost all our knowledge of it comes from media, and man is it a honey-pot for them!
It’s given us understandably-incessant tales and images of injury, tragedy, loss, broken iconic buildings, heroism, sacrifice, leadership and gratifying international response. It’s extremely television-friendly.
My quake experience started there, but actually almost nobody lives in Rescue City. The resources and attention which are seemingly being poured into it right now are NOT addressing the most urgent post-quake needs of the population of Christchurch.
SHOWER CITY is any part of Christchurch where you can take a hot shower, because you have electricity and running water and mostly-working sewer lines. By latest estimates, that’s about 65% of the city — much of it out west.
In that part of Christchurch, weary and stressed people are getting on with life — though some may be wondering if they still have a job. And a few of them with energy and time to spare are wondering if they can do more to help the rest of the city.
The media naturally lives in Shower City, and they talk almost exclusively to the business leaders and the Rescue City leadership who also inhabit it.
REFUGEE CITY is the rest of Christchurch — mainly the eastern suburbs, though there are pockets elsewhere. It includes perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 people, though a more-mobile chunk of them may have self-evacuated by now.
Only half of those who remain in Refugee City have power, and almost NONE have running water. Many have been living on their own resources, and their neighbours’, for over a week now.
That means that batteries have run down, gas (if they had any to start with) has run out, other supplies are low or gone. Roads are often very bad – and a lot of those from the poorer suburbs have no transport anyway.
Their houses may or may not be intact. Their streets may be clear, broken, or full of silt. Or sewage. There are no showers. Or ways to wash clothes. Or to wash dishes. Or to heat the “must boil” water that is available — assuming they can make it to the nearest water truck, day after day. No refrigeration. No working toilets, and precious few portaloos. No face masks to defend against the blown silt.
They have no internet either, and usually no phones. And their radio batteries are dead or dying. The papers — if you can get one — are rapidly dated, and usually far too general in their coverage. It really doesn’t help someone without a car in Aranui to know that Fisher and Paykel are providing free laundries in Kaiapoi!
All the above means the locals have few resources, little information, and no “voice” either. It’s remarkably hard to call talkback radio – or your local politician — or emergency services — when your landline is out and your cellphone battery is dead. Or when it maybe has JUST enough charge to stay on hold for 5 minutes – but not 20! – when calling the sole government helpline.
The media flies over, drives past and dips into Refugee City, usually at the main welfare or water points. But they don’t cover it that much. From my observations, the officials – those who are making decisions about the relief effort – seem to do likewise.
[…]
IN THESE POWERLESS SUBURBS, THE OFFICIAL RESPONSE IS FAR FROM ENOUGH. Especially in terms of the fundamentals.

It continues at considerable length, and I urge you to read it all, particularly the bit which tells you what you can do to make a difference.

Edit: There is another similarly grim comment from Puddleglum at The Standard:

I’ve spent the last few days shovelling silt in the east of Christchurch. My nephew who had helped dig a friend out of his house in Bexley on Saturday has been over more of the eastern suburbs. Basically, it gets exponentially worse the further east from the central city you go.
These people are already angry, stressed, dismissive of the reactions of most authorities and doggedly trying to do it themselves – yet, as the poster notes, they had the fewest resources to begin with. It’s heartbreaking. Bitter jokes punctuate emotionally strained comments about ‘you just have to go on’, ‘what else can you do?’, ‘THEY won’t help’. They did really appreciate the volunteer ‘diggers’, though.

Read the whole thing.

I’m on deadline and short on time, but my initial response is as follows.

The response is not blind to class or social station. Of course it’s not; as early as last Wednesday I was seeing tweets from people in what is now Shower City saying “we’re doing it hard, but those poor areas down the line haven’t got anything”. This is a feature of disaster responses everywhere. Of course, those suburbs hardest-hit are those suburbs hardest-hit. But what’s really problematic is intersectionality: live in a hard-hit suburb and you’re poor? Tough for you.

I suspect the problem is not so much exploitation as it is ignorance, both wilful and otherwise; by both officials and others. Referring back to the discussions of exploitation on my previous posts, it might be that the residents of Refugee City would welcome a horde of snooping cameras, as long as they could be assured that the footage they captured would stimulate a greater and better-targeted response.

The media has a responsibility to tell this story, as much as it does to relay the uplifting narratives of solidarity and community resilience from Rescue and Shower Cities. A week on from the event, it should not fall to an insomniac resident of Refugee City who is fortunate enough to have the electricity, technical means, personal wherewithal and social networks to tell this story as if it is some sort of revelation. That is the job of the professionals. We should already know all of this.

In their meagre defence, I have heard some media outlets asking questions such as these. A reporter (from TV3) asked Bob Parker yesterday, after the fanfare resulting from the discovery of the time capsule, whether it was good enough that Aranui still didn’t have toilets. (His reply was not good enough — that the response had been very good overall — and the journalist did not push him.) They toured Aranui yesterday, talking with the residents and broadcasting their concerns — lack of facilities, lack of attention, breakdown of the rule of law. Breakdown of the rule of law. People fleeing their homes because, at twilight, groups of people roam around casing houses for burglary.

The media must report this, and in some cases it has: but ultimately it is for the government to undertake a response which mitigates against this inequitably-distributed misery. And a government who is reportedly considering policy changes which will weigh heavily upon lower-income New Zealanders would be well-advised to look after those citizens’ response.

As they say: the whole world’s watching.

L

(Thanks to Emma Hart for bringing this to my attention.)

Hard rain’s a-gonna fall

datePosted on 00:14, February 3rd, 2011 by Lew


The past week has illustrated in clear terms the New Zealand Labour party’s decline as an effective opposition party. In the opening moments of election year 2011, John Key has stepped up to demonstrate the full extent of the National government’s apparent impunity. He has done this in three ways.

First, by fronting Morning Report, Nine to Noon, Campbell Live and other tier-1 hard-news media to outline his intention to partially privatise SOEs. Privatisation, since the Fourth Labour Government, has been a ‘third rail’ issue; one the NZ left is unequivocally opposed to. By going into bat for privatisation personally, and in considerable policy detail, Key confounded criticism which has been (justly) levelled at him throughout the electoral term so far that he often refuses to show up on hard media, while continuing to keep regular spots in soft formats like Breakfast, and on less rigorous media such as Newstalk ZB. He also invested his own (considerable) political capital in the enterprise, making privatisation a matter of his own judgement and credibility.

Second, he sought out and is revelling in the controversy caused by his “Liz Hurley is hot” stunt, undertaken on Radio Sport with convicted back-breaker Tony Veitch. In political terms, the first bit was no meaningful risk; Key has played the ‘frankly, I’m a red-blooded Kiwi bloke’ card several times before, always to good effect, and most notably when he informed a press scrum he’d had a vasectomy. The decision to undertake an interview with the disgraced Veitch was a considerably more risky proposition because of the nature of Veitch’s offending against his partner, combined with the subject matter of their conversation, and the fact that Key’s political appeal to women has been considerably stronger than previous National leaders. This seems clearly calculated to demonstrate what he can get away with; and the gamble has in fact paid off so well that Phil Goff today felt compelled to follow suit, suggesting a slightly sad “me too, me too” narrative.

The third of Key’s big moves was today’s dual announcement that the election would be held on 26 November, 10 months away and following the Rugby World Cup; and that he would not consider a coalition arrangement which included Winston Peters. Coupled with ruling out working with Hone Harawira outside his present constraints in the māori party, this declaration will provide considerable reassurance to National’s traditional base, and will scotch any possibility of wavering conservatives casting a hopeful vote for Winston Peters as an each-way bet. It is a risky proposition, though — Peters remains a redoubtable political force, and it is not beyond possibility that he returns to parliament. However I think Key has read the electorate well; he knows that while a small number of people love Peters, and a small number loathe him, many of those in the middle are vaguely distrustful of him. As Danyl points out, he’s managed to link Peters to Goff in a way which emphasises both leaders’ worst attributes: Peters’ polarising tendency, and the general unease and disdain with which voters view Goff. The decision to call the election so early is also bold. It means relinquishing the incumbent advantage of being able to control the electoral agenda; being able to determine when ‘government as usual’ ceases and ‘campaign season’ begins. This is an intangible but valuable benefit, and it has been traded off against another piece of reassurance: the sense that Key and his government are “playing it straight” with the New Zealand public; that they intend to run an open and forthright campaign and to seek an honest mandate for their second term. The choice of election date isn’t entirely selfless, of course — the All Blacks are odds-on favourites to win the Rugby World Cup, and even if they don’t, the tournament, its pageantry and excitement and revenue boost will bifurcate the campaign. The traditional campaign period will mostly be drowned out by this event, save for the last few frantic weeks.

In most election years, swapping agenda-setting rights for a “playing it straight” feeling would be a poor tradeoff. In most election years, a sexist stunt with a known and publicly reviled wife-beater would be a poor start. In most election years, running a campaign based on privatisation would simply be a non-starter. While the paragraphs above read somewhat like breathless praise of Key’s status as a political playa, that’s not my intent. I think he’s good, but mostly John Key just knows what he can get away with. The reason he can get away with all of these things is because there is no credible opposition to prevent him from doing so. Anyone half-decent can look sharp when playing against amateurs.

It has been Labour’s job to prevent the government from reaching the state of near-impunity they now enjoy, and their failure to do so means there is now a real danger that Key will get the genuine and sweeping mandate he seeks. To a considerable extent they were doomed in the task of preventing this from the outset, because they didn’t think it was possible that he’d ever achieve it. Clark Labour throughout 2008 fundamentally misunderestimated Key, writing him off as a bumbling lightweight, and this was a crucial error. Since well before the election — this example is from July 2008 — I’ve been arguing to anyone who’ll listen that instead of taking easy pot shots at Key based on his weaknesses, any critique should focus on his strengths. Quoting myself, from the above:

Key’s strengths [per the Herald bio], which enabled him to succeed as a currency trader: Decisiveness. Determination. Patience. Ice-cold calm under fire. Willingness to risk it all. Ability to follow through. Remorselessness.
If you want to attack John Key, draw attention to what might happen under a Key government. Given his history, he’s not some motley fool who won’t make sweeping changes – he hasn’t gotten where he is today by being timid. I think he has the wherewithal to roll out a sweeping programme of political and social change the like of which we haven’t seen since Lange, but I think that, unlike Lange, he won’t get cold feet. If you don’t like Key’s politics, I suggest you begin thinking about what might happen if the guy is given the power he seeks.

The delusion that John Key is a hapless fool who’s somehow mysteriously gotten his hands on the reins of power remains very much alive within New Zealand lefties; this was the tired old line I got spun as recently as this afternoon, by one of the internet’s best-known Labourites (with a nice dollop of ‘if you don’t praise Labour, you’re a rightie’ for good measure).

But this tendency to misjudge and underestimate Key is only part of the problem. Denizens of The Standard aside, anyone within the loop who has a modicum of reason has figured out that Key is not the lightweight he was — quite willingly — framed as. But now the narrative is set: it’s That Nice Man John Key, who drinks beer out of the bottle while tending the barbecue with Prince Harry, and thinks Liz Hurley is hot. They don’t have a credible counter-narrative, but they have to say something against the health cuts, education cuts, tax cuts, ACC cuts, pending privatisation and so on — and so they fall back on their usual tired old cliches, which, while superficially looking like what an opposition is supposed to do, lack cohesion and run counter to the established wisdom about Key and his government — wisdom laid down, in the first place, by the Labour party in its 2008 campaign.

The lack of narrative cohesion is so dire that the party claims that privatisation of SOEs is repugnant to the voting public of New Zealand; and almost simultaneously puts out a press release saying that it’s a cynical ploy to “cling to power”. The manifest incompatibility of these two propositions — cynically promoting an unpopular policy to retain power — speaks for itself.

If the inability to construct a viable narrative is symptomatic of a wider lack of ideas and direction within Labour. Election-year spin aside, their policy offering is weak as well. Their big blockbuster kicking-off-election-year policy of a $5000 tax-free zone was big enough to draw plenty of criticism about cost and targeting (including from people like Brian Easton), but timid enough that nobody was made to sit up and take notice for any other reason (sidenote: when Brian Easton, John Shewan, Chris Trotter and I all oppose something, I think you can be pretty sure it’s not a winner).

This is just the most recent example of what we’ve seen throughout the past two years: Labour’s vision, and its execution, simply aren’t up to scratch. I have no internal knowledge of the Labour party, and I don’t know whose fault this is. I guess the leadership blames the strategists, the strategists blame the policy wonks, the policy wonks blame the spin-doctors and the spin-doctors blame the MSM™. All that’s just excuse-making for losers. There are no socially-just power-redistribution schemes in politics, and if there were they would be rorted. There is no fair. The job of being in opposition is to win despite the odds being stacked against you; to do and say things worthy of the news media’s time, worthy of the government’s concern, and worthy of the electorate’s endorsement. If you’re not doing that, you’re not up to the task.

As the title implies, the political weather this election year is not going to be a warm drizzle. John Key wants a mandate; he wants a strong and broad mandate which will permit him to wreak widespread social, economic and political changes upon New Zealand’s landscape, and he is prepared to put a lot on the line to gain it. He is playing for keeps, and my instinct is that an opposition who couldn’t keep pace with ‘smile and wave’ is going to be crushed by the rampant beast which is currently girding for war. What’s more, by all accounts Key is actually, genuinely coming to the New Zealand electorate with a transparent policy offering in good faith, keeping his promise that nothing would be privatised without his first having sought a mandate to do so, which robs Labour of their strongest symbolic weapon: the “by stealth” bit of their catchcry “privatisation by stealth”. Time will tell if this holds, but at present the Key government is doing exactly what it says on the box. Labour can’t claim they haven’t known about this all along. Privatisation has been the bogeyman about which they’ve been warning the New Zealand public for at least a decade, which makes the incoherence of their recent response all the more unforgivable. That National would consider running an election campaign on this cornerstone issue, loathed and feared by so many New Zealanders, is surprising. That they can expect to do so without trying to get their agenda through on the sly is shocking. That they reasonably expect to do all that and win is unthinkable. Let there be no doubt: if Key wins this election on these grounds, it is because Labour, by failing to adequately discharge their role as a competent opposition, have permitted him to do so.

Perhaps it is not too late. Perhaps Key has overplayed his hand; perhaps Goff has a secret weapon. Perhaps a young Turk is fixing to roll Goff and his cadres and make a break for it. I do not think any of these are likely. So it may be that the one good electoral thing to emerge from 2011 is a heavy and humbling loss which would see the Labour party reduced to a meagre husk. An exodus of the lively and creative thinkers of the party to another vehicle; or the enforced retirement of the deadwood responsible for the present state of affairs; or both would clear the way for a thoroughgoing rejuvenation of the movement’s principles and its praxis and its personnel. While it would be cold comfort to the generation of New Zealanders who will bear the brunt of the Key government’s second and third-term policies, it would be a crucial and long overdue lesson in political hubris, never to be forgotten, and infinitely preferable to another narrow loss and the moribund hope that next time it’ll be different.

L

The Big Wet

datePosted on 15:27, January 12th, 2011 by Lew

Having neglected my bloggerly duties these past six weeks (in fact, I’ve been neglecting all my duties which aren’t strictly in service of looking after my family and keeping my job), I had resolved to write something about one of the many momentous events which have taken place recently. There are many to choose from. Some topics (Pike River; Wikileaks; Foreshore and Seabed for instance) are no longer immediate; others (the re-emergence of Winston Peters, commencement of the NZ general election campaign and its forerunner the Botany by-election) are not yet sufficiently well-formed for me to quite know what to say about them yet. Yet others (notably the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, Wikileaks and the Urewera Terra trials) have been more ably dealt with by Pablo and/or so many others, such that anything I could say would be redundant. There’s already enough peoples’ two cents rattling around in the hollow urn of internet discussion. In the context of these events other things I was meaning to write about (such as the manvertising topic Pablo discussed before the break) seem a bit trivial.

Add to all of this, today there is really only one story; that an area twice the size of Texas — the canonical measure of a really big thing — is underwater in Queensland; including much of Brisbane. The coverage put out by the Australian media, and in particular the ABC, is first-rate, and the best I can do is commend it to your attention.

There is one point, however, that I don’t think has been made strongly enough: and that’s that events such as these are a consequence of climate change. While it is fashionable for climate change deniers to mock those pointing to the increasing frequency and severity of snowstorms, cold snaps, hurricanes and torrential rainfall events as evidence for ‘global warming’; implying that climate science proponents try to take everything as evidence of ‘global warming’, the fact is that the term ‘global warming’ was retired and replaced with ‘climate change’ because the thesis isn’t just that the planet will get warmer.

That’s part of it, but the events — snowfall and what not — being pointed to are not climate; they are weather. The relationship between climate and weather is a lot like the relationship between mathematics and arithmetic — indistinguishable if you don’t understand them, but fundamentally of a different order. Weather, like arithmetic, is by and large small, trivial, unarguable stuff — stuff which is more or less self-evident. It rained this much last week; 2+2=4 — whereas climate, and mathematics, are bigger, more open-ended and by definition less quantifiable. Mistaking ‘weather’ for ‘climate’ is an immensely useful rhetorical device, and one which I believe has not been sufficiently well guarded-against by those whose task it is to argue the climate change case. But even though it may not have been made clear to the degree necessary for broad public and political comprehension, this distinction is well understood by those working in the field and anyone who cares to acquaint themselves even scarcely with the material. And fundamentally the take-away is this: climate change caused by the increased quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to the extent that it takes place, will have unpredictable flow-on effects such as increased frequency and severity of severe weather events, and not just heat waves and droughts such as ‘warming’ would suggest.

The XKCD comic above (of which some years ago, my wife bought me the t-shirt) shows the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation spectrum. This has nothing much to do with climate change, but it is a famous proof of the scientific method: a near-perfect agreement between theory and actuality which is pretty fundamental to our understanding of a bunch of stuff. Science’s only defence; the only thing which gives it any importance or makes it any use at all, is that it works. When properly applied, it predicts actual events. The Queensland floods, as well as other such events, are happening as predicted, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either ignorant, or having you on, or both. In Andrew Bolt‘s case, it’s both. Queenslanders — and others similarly impacted by such events — need neither.

L

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