Posts Tagged ‘Greens’

In light of the attention brought to matters of intelligence collection and analysis in recent months, it is entirely reasonable for the Greens and Labour to demand a fill inquiry into the organization, role and functions of the New Zealand intelligence community, including its responsibilities and obligations in international intelligence networks such as Echelon/5 Eyes and other less publicized arrangements. As the Kitteridge Report noted with regard to the GCSB and what the Zaoui case demonstrated in the case of the SIS, there were or are serious deficiencies in both agencies. These are as much if not more managerial than operational, but the truth is that a review of the entire intelligence community is overdue in light of the changing realities of intelligence gathering in the 21st century.

That is why the National government’s attempt to pass reforms to the 2003 GCSB Act that extend its domestic powers and scope of authority, coupled with the proposed Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill that would, among other things, force telecommunications firms to provide backdoor access to their source and encryption codes, needs to be delayed until such time a proper inquiry into the entire espionage complex is undertaken. Without full understanding of areas of strength and weakness in the system, it is impossible to knowledgeably address the proposed reforms in the way signals intelligence is gathered and used in and by New Zealand, much less how it should be balanced against rights to privacy and institutional accountability.

As part of the calls for the inquiry, some on the Left have proposed that a review of New Zealand’s participation in Echelon be undertaken. Some have gone so far to say that it could become another watershed moment such as that surrounding the 1985 non-nuclear declaration. Presumably the watershed would be occasioned by a withdrawal from Echelon.

As much as I think that a review of New Zealand’s role in Echelon is welcome, especially in light of the Kim Dotcom case and recent revelations about mass scale meta-data mining by the US National Security Agency (and the meta-data mining by the GCSB revealed by the Kitteridge Report), I think that it would be absolute folly to withdraw from Echelon. Changes in the terms and conditions of New Zealand’s participation in Echelon may be warranted, but a full withdrawal from the signals intelligence-sharing community composed of the US, UK, Australia, Canada and NZ seems foolish.

I will not reiterate here the early warning, big picture and deep insight benefits that NZ accrues from being an Echelon partner. What I will note is that it has been a partner in Echelon for more than three decades, and as such shares some of the most guarded secrets, both historical and contemporary, of the Anglophone intelligence community. This includes methods, technologies, locations and sources for signals intelligence collection as well as the content of specific subjects of interest.

The Echelon partners will take a very dim view of these secrets suddenly becoming insecure as a result of a NZ withdrawal from Echelon. No matter what assurances may be given or what phased devolution of responsibilities is proposed, they are bound to fret about classified Echelon information falling into hostile hands as a result of that decision. That will likely prompt a full scope defensive counter-response to minimize the possibility of damaging or sensitive material falling into the “wrong” hands.

That response will far outweigh the diplomatic estrangement caused by the non-nuclear declaration (which ultimately amounted to a freeze on bilateral military-to-military contacts but which did not alter intelligence sharing or diplomatic relations in any significant measure). The negative consequences of withdrawal from Echelon will be felt in the intelligence arena, but will also be felt economically, militarily, and most definitely cyber-electronically, and will not just come from the other 5 Eyes partners.

Under a Labour/Green government that decides to withdraw from Echelon, New Zealand might seek to hedge its bets by establishing intelligence sharing ties with the People’s Republic of China or Russia. The first would complement the economic re-orientation towards the PRC in recent years, whereas the latter would cultivate relations with a long-term and now resurgent Western adversary (which is now in the process of re-deploying submarines to the South Pacific for the first time in over 20 years). Either move would show a clear commitment to diplomatic re-alignment away from traditional partners and towards Eurasia, something that would nicely complement the primary geographic focus of NZ’s trade-oriented foreign policy (we should remember that NZ is in the early stages of negotiations with Russia on a “free” trade agreement).

For both Russia and the PRC, gaining access to Echelon data would be invaluable even if the remaining 4 Eyes are forced to completely overhaul their systems in order to limit the damage caused by a NZ “flip.” In fact, the repercussions from such an act might force NZ to seek the security protection of either great power. One assumes that for this to happen the NZ public will be comfortable with the shift in alignment.

It is less probable that other Western nations such as France or Germany would want to jeopardize their relations with the Echelon community by entering into an alternative signals intelligence-sharing arrangement with NZ. Perhaps rising powers such as India, South Africa or Brazil might want to take advantage of the window of opportunity, but that also seems unlikely.

That is why I believe that the speculation about an inquiry into the intelligence community resulting in a “watershed” NZ withdrawal from Echelon is poorly considered. Escaping international commitments of any sort is fraught in many ways, and in order to do so the benefits of reneging must clearly outweigh the costs. The decision must enjoy broad support and be politically sustainable at home as well as abroad.

In that light, the benefits of a withdrawal from Echelon are uncertain and the downside of withdrawing from such a long-term and highly sensitive international security commitment is too great and too obvious for such talk to be anything but ignorant or Labour/Green posturing in the build up to next year’s elections. If that is the case, it undermines the Labour/Green bid to have a full inquiry into NZ intelligence community reform because there will be little support outside of select party factions for a move to withdraw from Echelon, and any reform initiatives that include that possibility will not be taken seriously.

It would therefore seem best for the Greens (in particular) and Labour to stifle such speculation from within their ranks in order for their calls for a full inquiry into the NZ intelligence community be given due consideration. That still leaves much room for review, but has a better chance of garnering broad-based support than by continuing to entertain thoughts about watershed moments.

The left’s lose-lose SOE strategy

datePosted on 11:50, March 10th, 2013 by Lew

If it wasn’t already over on the night of 26 November 2011, the argument about the popular legitimacy of the government’s plan to partially privatise selected state-owned enterprises was finally put to bed when the pre-registration website for the Mighty River Power float fell over shortly after it went live. Whether this was a result of intentional underprovisioning to generate buzz or genuine organic demand doesn’t matter: within 24 hours 100,000 people had pre-registered interest in buying shares. That’s about one-third of the signatures opponents of the scheme took seven months to collect to force a citizens initiated referendum. The battle over whether these assets will be sold has been well and truly lost, and expending more political firepower on it is futile. The left needs to start organisaing around how they will be run.

This episode highlights two separate failures of strategy; one from the 2011 election, and one for 2014 and beyond.

Salience
Labour mistook asset sales for a high-salience issue and tried to run a campaign on it, when in reality too few cared enough for it to work. I have no reason to disbelieve the assertion that most people don’t want the assets sold. But the evidence of the election, the sluggish uptake of petition signatures, and the general lack of traction gained by the Labour party, for whom this has been the only coherent policy frame since the election, show that it is not an issue about which people are strongly exercised.

This strategy worked quite well for NZ First, and to a lesser extent the Greens, both of whom have the luxury of being able to appeal to a smaller base who care more strongly about a narrower range of issues. But it didn’t work for Labour, and the recognition that what works for parties of a relatively activist mindset doesn’t work for a broad-based, moderate mainstream party is long overdue. It failed. Time to move on.

Mandate
The notion that the government, having spent the entire year 2011 campaigning on it, lacks a mandate to proceed with asset sales is utter nonsense, as I wrote when the campaign kicked off. Labour and the Greens have decided the mood of low-level dissatisfaction with the plan that failed to win them the election will be sufficient to derail the policy now that it is on the move. They have decided that a citizen-initiated referendum, which worked so well for the opponents of the Section 59 repeal, is their best tool. Andrew Geddis wrote brilliantly about the problems with this in June last year, and here I essentially restate one of his arguments — that the Greens and Labour should be careful what they wish for. Both Labour and the Greens rely on the maxim that what’s right is not always popular. By insisting that policy be popular to be passed they risk painting themselves into a corner when next in government.

Plenty of bad policies are popular — three strikes, scaremongering about immigration, and most of the government’s welfare reforms are good examples. Despite what Josie Pagani might say, all are inimical to Labour and Green politics. How can they oppose these policies, if they’re so popular? Conversely, how can they insist on passing unpopular policies? Many of these are more central to the Greens than to Labour — the Greens are not a popular party; they poll just above 10%, so why are they embracing populism? Their policy agenda relies on making the electorate eat its greens, so to speak. Emissions control legislation, for example, will be deeply unpopular if it’s remotely effective. Likewise public transport and urban development policies, whose upfront costs are large and immediate but whose benefits are long-term and gradual, will be incredibly hard to pass if they insist on gaining the support of car-reliant suburban villa-owners.

Whether they “win” the referendum or not, at best Labour and the Greens will be vulnerable to legitimate accusations of hypocrisy whenever they propose policy that is merely somewhat popular, as opposed to being very popular. The will have demonstrated that consistency doesn’t really matter, and that could do deep harm to their long-term credibility. Worse yet, they could stand rigidly by their new-found populism and only propose policy that a clear majority of the electorate wants. Both strategies do more for NZ First than they do for Labour and the Greens.

The discussion has changed
The left has lost the argument about asset sales. Barring some sort of deus ex machina it’ll go ahead and will probably be a net vote winner for the government. But the apparent mismanagement of Solid Energy has given Labour and the Greens an opportunity to reframe the state-owned enterprise discussion, away from who owns these businesses to how they are run.

Both parties must be reluctant to do this, given that many of the bad decisions were made under the previous Labour government, and much of the lost money was poured into “green” tech like biofuels. But it is a necessary shift if the left is to own some of this debate. Regardless of what occurred before 2008, that things got so much worse under the current government, and that this was apparently a surprise to the shareholding minister is a serious failure of governance, and the public deserves answers about it. It’s a good opportunity for the left to highlight the point that there are good government managers and bad government managers, and that they will be the former, not the latter. The Greens have begun to do this by arguing that the government’s policies and directives to Solid Energy — including the lignite strategy, and changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme — effectively kneecapped the company.

Labour and the Greens should take the initiative and reframe this SOE debate now. If they persist with beating the dead horse of ownership, the risk is that the government will strengthen its case that the state simply isn’t fit to own businesses, paving the way for the rest of the SOEs to be sold as soon as they can secure a mandate to do so. The only alternative I can see for the opposition is a pledge to re-nationalise the sold assets. If they’re going to do that they need to get on with it — if they reveal this policy after the Mighty River Power float goes ahead the risk isn’t the argument that the state shouldn’t own businesses; it’s that Labour and the Greens are parties of big-government kleptocracy, trying to turn Aotearoa into the Venezuela of the South Pacific.

L

A dialogue with Alwyn Poole on charter schools

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

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

Read the rest of this entry »

Today the President of the United States of America came out (if that’s the right term) in support of gay marriage. Hours later, The leader of the New Zealand Labour party did likewise. The responses they got could hardly have been more different. Obama’s statement was greeted with a worldwide ripple of excitement; Shearer’s with a localised wave of criticism. Aside from the obvious difference in scale, we can make some sense of the difference in valence by looking at two main factors: the content of their respective messages in political context; and the media and moment in which they were made.

Substance and political context

Allowing for the differences in political context, Obama’s and Shearer’s statements were reasonably similar. Both expressed support for gay marriage in principle, with reservations about implementation. In Obama’s case, the reservations were constitutional. The President can’t unilaterally pass an act permitting gay marriage; it has to go through two federal houses and most aspects of marriage are still, ultimately, determined by the states. Obama’s statement was symbolic and aspirational. First of all, it was a means of defining who he is, politically — a rebuttal of suggestions that he is timid or not liberal enough, and a means of illustrating a sharp distinction between his administration and the caricatured culture-war conservatism of his Republican opponents. It was also an opportunity to reinvigorate the American political left. David Frum said it well:

The statement changes everything because it galvanizes flagging liberal enthusiasm for this president—while subtly corroding even further the Republican hold on the next generation of voters.

(You should read Frum’s whole piece, it’s short and articulates clearly why this was a strategic coup.)

Shearer’s statement was, if anything, less equivocal than Obama’s; he merely said that he “would like to see the detail of any legislation before giving formal support”. In purely rational terms, that’s totally reasonable; nobody signs a blank political cheque. Much of the criticism has centred on the assumption that any such law would be introduced by Labour, so Shearer would not only get to see it but would get to vet it before declaring support. This isn’t really so; Labour are in opposition, and barring extreme exigencies they will be for at least 2.5 years to come. Given the Greens’ long-standing commitment to gay marriage and remarkable success in the member’s ballot, there’s a better-than-even chance that a hypothetical same-sex marriage bill drawn at random would be theirs.* There are plenty of potential pitfalls in such a bill, if badly drafted, and it is reasonable to hold reservations.

Other criticism of Shearer has centred on the argument that Obama’s political context is much more hostile to gay marriage, and his declaring in favour of it constitutes a genuine act of political bravery, while it’s a rather less contentious issue here. Also not entirely fair; of course, that difference in political context exists, but Obama is in power, and (largely due to Republican infighting) in political ascendancy, while Shearer is in opposition and in the doldrums. It is also very unlikely that any gay marriage bill would pass the current NZ Parliament, especially now that social-conservatives like NZ First are back in.

So on the merits, criticism of Shearer for appending this seemingly-innocuous qualifier seems a bit unfair. But there are two better explanations for hostility: first, he misread his medium; and more importantly, he misread the moment.

The medium and the moment

Obama made his statement in a medium and situation that afforded him considerable control over how his message would be transmitted and received, and that enabled him to articulate his position both from a personal perspective and politically. Good Morning America was a sympathetic venue; morning TV is warm and nonconfrontational, on the ABC network even more so than usual. It is not strictly time-controlled and interviewers generally do not play hardball. Its audience is more liberal, more female, and more inclined to respond favourably to expressions of personal warmth and reflection such as this one.

Shearer chose Twitter to make his announcement — the most constrained medium possible, one that permits no contextualisation, no emotional or personal connection. Given his performance to date as leader of the opposition, and the NZ Twitter left’s activist bias, it’s probably also one of the more hostile media open to him. It’s not talkback, but in some ways it’s worse: a lot of people who really want to like you, but are already frustrated and disappointed and are beginning to despair can be a harsher audience than your outright enemies. Twitter also means that you are expected to be spare and to the point, and to only include detail that is significant. By hedging, he signalled that his position was not firm or genuine. The medium is the message, so the inclusion of an obvious redundancy like “need to see the detail” when characters are so limited doesn’t look like understandable prudence, it looks like fuzzy-headed waffly-thinking at best, or political cowardice at worst. David Shearer mistook a platform for slick, aspirational one-liners as the venue for earnest political positioning.

And that leads to the most crucial point of all: Shearer misread the political moment. Obama’s declaration in personal, philosophical terms of his “evolution” from someone who did not support gay marriage to someone who does was a watershed moment, a genuinely epochal event: when the President of the United States of America supports your cause, all of a sudden it looks a lot more like happening. A loud shot was fired in the culture wars; it instantly became global news, and with the news came a wave of liberal euphoria. This was, as Russell Brown noted, the best possible moment to note Labour’s progressive history and rededicate to the goal of marriage equality, but it was not a time for wonkish quibbling about details, or careful delineation of party policy. The moment was one of joy, of celebration, of possibility — of hope and change — and any response had to be congruent with that. Shearer’s wasn’t. The contrast jarred, and made the other, lesser, deficiencies in the message and its presentation more evident.

Substance, context, medium and moment. You can’t really afford to be without any of these, but if you’re trying to catch a wave of public sentiment, you really have to get your moment right.

This is symptomatic of Labour’s ongoing failure to articulate its vision: a lack of mastery of the tools and techniques at their disposal. Shearer’s lack of authenticity and his inability to speak clearly and unequivocally from his own position, that I touched on in my last post on this topic, was depressingly evident in this episode, and it may be that he’s still being tightly managed. A more concerning possibility is that this is the real David Shearer: lacking in virtù, like his predecessor.

But despite everything, I think this was a good experience for Labour — hopefully it has demonstrated to them that sometimes being timid is worse than being silent. If “go hard or go home” is the only lesson they take from today, it will have been worth it.

L

* Hypothetical, because none are in the ballot at present, though I expect that to change soon. Idiot/Savant drafted one some years ago, and it would not be an hour’s work to get it in.

The Agony of Defeat.

datePosted on 11:43, November 29th, 2011 by Pablo

Well, it was a grim morning of the day after in my household on Sunday. The evil-doers prevailed and the forces of righteousness and progress were soundly spanked, with the exception of a formerly progressive party that now has gone managerial as it mainstreams to the political centre. Sure, there were some points of solace in the otherwise dark landscape of electoral outcomes, but overall the egalitarian side of the NZ political spectrum got hammered.

But all is not lost. In the scheme of things, this was not the worst election defeat I have experienced as a voter. For me, as an ex-pat Yank, that dubious honor rests with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The idea that someone who epitomized prejudice, elitism, ignorance, racism, war-mongering, corporate-backed chickhawk cowardice and the utter insipidness of campaign promises could defeat a decent fellow such as Jimmy Carter actually made me fear for basic freedoms and civil rights in that country. Sure, it was not as bad as living through coups or revolutions in Latin America, where losers in the regime change had very real reason to fear for their lives. But is was as close as I have felt in a democracy to being politically at risk as a result of an election. That feeling was reaffirmed a few months later when Reagan was shot, where the response on the working class African American street where I lived was to “hope that a brother did not do it.” Such was the tone of the times that we worried more about the backlash then the fact that the president was almost killed off (and boy, were we relieved when it turned out to be a white nutter who fired the shots).

I felt nearly as bad when W. Bush was fraudulently installed as president after losing the US popular vote in 2000. However, by that time I had moved to NZ and did not have to worry about directly suffering the consequences of yet another silver spoon-fed corporate chickenhawk imperialist stealing his way into power. But I feared for what he was about to wreak on the US (where my family and close friends live) and the world at large. A decade later the proof of his folly is everywhere to be seen. Helen Clark was right: things would have been different had Al Gore rightfully been awarded the 2000 election. But all that is water under the bridge and the person copping the most flak in the aftermath is Barack Obama. Talk about inheriting a mess!

Given that backdrop I am not catatonic because the currency speculator and his band of money-grubbing bullies have been re-elected under the banner of “stability.” It could be worse, and I am thankful that when compared to the US, the bulk of the NZ political spectrum is less reactionary or retrograde. Even so, with expanded anti-terrorism laws and powers of search, surveillance and seizure all passed by the National government in recent years (something that went unnoticed in the buildup to the election), I can see encroaching authoritarianism in its second term. One only has to watch the Prime Minister’s response to hard questions to see his sense of arrogance and entitlement on display. This is a guy who is used to getting his way, however he can, without much regard for the consequences except with respect to his corporate peers. So regardless of public opinion, the PM will push his asset sales agenda, will continue to suck up to both the US and the Chinese while pursuing trade for trade’s sake, and will play as loose with the rules of the democratic game as his weakened opposition will allow him.  And by playing divide and conquer with the Maori Party and the Greens, he could well get his way across the board.

I take solace in the fact that electoral defeats are the lifeblood of democratic politics. It is not so much what the victor does after an election. It is how the losers respond that makes the difference. Losing allows parties to remove the sclerosis from their ranks and rejuvenate both personnel and policy platforms. Losing allows parties to reinvigorate in opposition. Losing forces parties to explore new policy options and ideological possibilities. Should Labour understand this simple law of democratic politics, it can regroup and compete more effectively in three years. If it does not, we could be saddled with the corporate-cuddling cabal for a third term. The question is: does Labour have it within itself to make the serious changes required for it to have relevance in the years forward?

I do see the Green Party vote increase as a positive sign even if its support is coming from disaffected Labour voters more than anywhere else. Between the Greens and Labour there is still a solid 35-37 percent of the vote, figures that could grow should National’s economic policies continue the trend of growing income disparities, elite enrichment, environmental degradation and foreign control. Since voter turnout was so low this year, a mere rise in those who vote in 2014 is bound to increase support for the Left (such as it is) because people tend to vote when they are unhappy about the status quo (apathy such as that seen in this year’s election had less to do with serious discontent and more to do with complacency and belief in a foregone outcome). Thus this moment of defeat is a ripe time for Labour to undertake the necessary changes required to come back and compete successfully in 2014. That means a major leadership shuffle as well as policy change away from the “National-lite” pro-market stance it has maintained for nearly 20 years. In other words, it needs to turn back Left, both in terms of recapturing a class line as well as more sincerely embracing post-modern progressive causes.

I do not claim any particular expertise in NZ politics and this ramble was merely sparked by my reflection on which electoral defeats were the worst for me as a voter in a democratic country. But I do think that one big redeeming feature of liberal democracy, no matter how manufactured, manipulated and corrupted it has become, is that losers are allowed to compete again at regular intervals, which gives them the opportunity to engage the internal reforms that will allow them to emerge from the ashes of even a catastrophic defeat in a better condition to win down the road. This holds true not only for the biggest loser in this year’s election, Labour, but also for such parties as ACT. After all, Winston Peters has shown that even political mummies can be resurrected without being reconstituted, so there is hope yet for even the smallest losers this time around.

115-125: Who’s at risk? Who might gain?

datePosted on 00:28, November 27th, 2011 by Anita

The Sainte-Laguë formula is used to allocate the 120 proportional seats in parliament. By calculating it out we can see which parties have only just got seats, and which have nearly got another one.

The full table is here: Sainte-Laguë calculation on the night (1446) , and the edge case seats are:

  • 115 National
  • 116 Labour
  • 117 National
  • 118 National
  • 119 Labour
  • 120 National
  • ——
  • 121 NZ First
  • 122 National
  • 123 Greens
  • 124 Labour
  • 125 National

The summary is that if the specials are roughly similar to the on-the-night count then the most likely party to lose a seat is National, the most likely to gain is NZ First.

That said, the specials are different, some patterns are common as they’re most likely people out of electorate or only recently enrolled. Given the general wisdom that the Greens tend to do well with the specials then one could argue the most likely scenario is the Greens jumping from 123 to 120 and taking a seat off National.


Updated with the content of a comment I made over at The Standard:

If we ignore the whole Christchurch factor (which I am thinking will lead to unusual behaviour in the specials) it would be a pretty safe assumption that National will drop one seat after specials – they have the 120th quotient and a tradition of doing poorly at specials.

Christchurch gives me a headache – specials caused by Christchurch will have to be people still enrolled in Chch but living/voting somewhere else, or people still living in Chch but not in their own electorate. Are they more likely to be the more wealthy (the exodus is reportedly quite strong amongst more well-off professionals who can easily get a job somewhere else)? Or the poorer (given their suburbs were hit worst)?

My gut says that the well-off professionals most likely have a home elsewhere now, and did the mail redirection thing, so got moved to the roll in their new town. The poor are more likely camping out with friends and family, quite possibly within the wider region, so haven’t been moved to another roll yet. So I’m guessing that the effect of the Christchurch quakes will be to swing specials even more toward the left than usual.

 


Update: here’s the table for the finals: Sainte Laguë final results (1233)

Against Centrism.

datePosted on 09:51, November 16th, 2011 by Pablo

The iron law of oligarchy states that the first duty of the organization is to preserve itself. This means that agents will go against the interests of principals for tactical and strategic reasons. For class-based parties the two main sources of rank and file betrayal are vanguardism and centrism. Vanguardism refers to the centralization of decision-making authority within a party elite, which sees organizational democracy in instrumental terms rather than as a social good.  The elite agenda is, foremost, about self-preservation justified in ideological terms.

Centrism refers to the tendency of class-based parties to move to the ideological centre in pursuit of wider mass appeal. This often means turning on what were once considered foundational principles of such parties, particularly adherence to a class line. The 20th century saw the emergence of a number of these type of party, New Zealand Labour being one of them. Once that “centrist” ideological space was captured electorally by the likes of NZ Labour (the permutations of the centrist shift by Socialist and Social Democratic parties are many), other parties emerged to fill the void and stand on principle. Few of them have survived, and those that do have married indigenous and environmental planks to an amorphous anti-capitalist platform.

One such party is the Green Party of New Zealand. It emerged as a party dedicated in principle to advancing the causes described above. It championed the environment as well as indigenous rights within it, and worked hard to provide an anti-imperialist, pacifist, human rights focused and anti-corporate counter-narrative to the market-oriented discourse of Labour and the collective Right. The composition of the Green Party caucus through its first decade in parliament showed a clear class consciousness. For many Left voters the Greens provided a tactical option under MMP, since a five percent party vote coupled with electorate votes for Labour candidates helped keep Labour ideologically “honest” when in government. Or so the Greens thought.

In practice the Green experience with the 5th Labour government was less than ideal, and in fact was marked by an increasing distance between the two erstwhile Left partners. Yet, as it replenished its ranks of MPs the Green Party began to emulate Labour and other Left-based “centrist” parties: it moved away from a strong class-based orientation and towards a more moderate stance on all original three ideological pillars. It saw an increased party vote in 2008, although it is unclear if the added support came from disgruntled Labour voters or genuine voter preference for a “reasonable” Left alternative to Labour’s increasingly corporate orientation. Whatever the cause, by 2011 the Greens have stripped out the Red in their ideological watermelon. There are no longer a working class-oriented party, and in fact have shifted to one that seeks the support of middle class voters who are not so much opposed to the status quo as they are seeking NIMBY relief within it.

The Greens are predicted to get 10 percent of the party vote in the 2011 election, with some estimates rising to 12-15 percent. The surge in support clearly has roots in voter disgust with National and Labour, but also is believed to be coming from moderate Left voters who feel more comfortable with Green occupying the ideological “space” formerly held by Labour. By moderating its policies and compromising on its foundational principles, the Greens have gone mainstream. The billboard vandalism scandal may be a perverse indication of that (with grassroots activists going outside the caucus mandate to make their point).

For voters who saw the Green party as the honest Left alternative, this is unfortunate. The Green march to the centre leaves those who believe in the essence of class conflict in capitalism (and its cousin, class compromise) devoid of electoral alternatives. Specifically, there is no longer a competitive Left option that challenges the fundamental logics of the contemporary New Zealand socio-economic system. Instead, there are only accommodationists of various centrist stripes, the Greens now being one of them. They may challenge along the margins of the dominant project, but they do not question the fundamentals. Despite the presence of Leftists and anti-imperialist/corporate rhetoric in the Mana Party, it appears to be more personality-driven and ideologically incoherent than a proper class-based party. That means that there is no genuine, politically viable alternative to the Left-centrist logic.

This type of political centripidalism is a natural aspect of  first past the post party systems, especially presidential ones. But MMP is supposed to give voice to parties of principle as well as catch-all parties, and is in fact considered to be a hedge against centralism. For both methodological individualists such as those on the libertarian Right as well as the collective good advocates on on the class-based Left, the move to centralism under MMP could well be a death knell (which ACT may prove in this election, and which the demise of the Alliance previewed in the last one).

In effect, what is good for the Green Party leadership and organization is not good for those at the grassroots who want a legitimate Left parliamentary alternative that is electorally viable and committed to questioning the status quo. In order for the Greens to have remained as such they would have had to eschew the temptation of centrism and accept their role as a minor party on the ideological margins that speaks truth to power rather than be a contender for power as given. That would have meant keeping to a more “militant,” or “activist” line that did not deviate from the foundational principles of the Party.  The iron law of oligarchy suggests that never was going to be the case (and perhaps membership preferences have changed so that it would not be so), and given that Labour sold out the rank and file a long time ago (its corporatist relationship with the CTU, EPMU and other trade unions notwithstanding, since these also subscribe to the iron law), that means that in this election there is no real choice for those on the Left who want to vote for a party that can substantively influence policy rather than provide a minor corrective or circus side show to the dominant political discourse.

That being said, I am sorely tempted to vote Mana in order to try and keep the Greens honest from the Leftish fringe!

PS: Left for another time is discussion of the fact that in the absence of institutional (party) avenues of voice and redress, ideological militants of all stripes gravitate to extra- or illegal means of doing so. In the measure that formerly principled parties go centrist or are not replaced by successful others, the ideological void they leave behind is often filled by those of less institutionalist persuasion.

Stop/Go

datePosted on 20:13, November 9th, 2011 by Lew

National’s initial Stop/Go TV ad is a pretty good one. Clean, to the point, not bogged down in detail but jampacked with symbolism:

Toby Manhire, writing on The Listener‘s excellent new website, has already done the analysis so I’ll quote him:

Red STOP Labour sign-guy looks a bit tense, uncomfortable, slouchily off-centre. His fist is closed, zip sloppily undone, and look at the state of those shoes.

He looks like he might just call in sick tomorrow because he feels like it, even though the country’s economy will suffer, while he just lies around, stuffing his face all day.

Green-blue GO National sign-guy looks comfortable but focused. Shoes are good. Sensible. He’s a little unshaven, but that’s because he’s a bit like the All Blacks, don’t you think? Like John Key is a bit like the All Blacks.

Check out the clouds, too. Fluffy, familiar things above Green-blue GO sign-guy; grey, foreboding, riskier bastards above that Red STOP man.

It can be no coincidence, what’s more, that the shadow GO Blue Green GO sign GO the All Blacks sign guy casts a shadow pointing where? The centre, people, the centre of the road.

But hang on a moment. The symbolism of a lazy Labourite and a clean-cut Tory is laid on a bit thick — and the scruffy old Labour guy looks just a tiny bit “ethnic”, if you know what I mean. Moreover the whole Stop/Go metaphor is a bit trite — trite enough that it was the basis for a satirical diary piece by David Slack in December last year:

And If you think about how traffic control actually works, the metaphor has coherence problems. Last night, Anna Hodge tweeted the following observation, which in hindsight seems so obvious:

Also, does National understand road works? Or fairness? You need sign-holding dudes with both GO *and* STOP to keep traffic flowing.

Um, quite. For some to go, others must stop (at least until we get reef-fish-inspired traffic management systems.)

Anna’s tweet generated a bunch of responses as the narrative of the ad began to unravel. Mine was that if you’re at the front of the queue, only the GO sign matters; others were about the size of your SUV, the increase in inequality between north- and south-bound traffic flows, and the fact that Stop and Go signs are the same sign, just viewed from different angles.

Aaron Hicks remarked that the STOP sign at road works means that there’s actually work going on, a point you’d have thought might be clear to a government undertaking such an aggressive roading policy. And did the green of the go sign hint at a National alliance with the Greens? But they’ve spent the last decade and a half telling us that the Greens’ green means stop so green is basically red, and now their own green (not even a Blue-green!) means go?

The more you think about it, the more tangled and incoherent the narrative gets. And yet for all its flaws the ad works. It relies on people not thinking too hard about it — upon audiences swallowing whole the top-level symbolic material Toby described, making what Stuart Hall called a hegemonic reading of the text. In Hall’s model the second audience position is a ‘negotiated’ reading — such as Toby’s analysis itself, which recognises the hegemonic aspects of the discourse but doesn’t necessarily accept them, and the third position is ‘contrary’; consciously reading against the text’s hegemonic meaning — what Anna did, as did those of us who responded to her observation.

A lesson from this is that reading a tightly-encoded text counter-hegemonically is hard work. Audiences are not sponges or “sheeple”; they will often take a negotiated position, but in general such a position doesn’t prevent the text from having some impact. This illustrates a point of strategy that my regular readers must be bored tears with by now: you can’t rebut a text like this head-on with wonkish facts and figures. Dry details about Labour’s record and plans on economic progress wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to the effectiveness of this particular ad, for two reasons: first because the hegemonic material doesn’t lodge in the head, it lodges in the guts (it’s truthiness, not truth); and second because such a rebuttal implicitly accepts the framing of the original text, and that framing is half the payload. But subverting the paradigm, man, that’s where the action is.

I’m not suggesting a comprehensive strategy to counter the National party campaign could be composed around a response to one 15-second ad, but if a counter-strategy was to be composed, that’s how you’d do it. Don’t berate people for accepting the hegemonic position, or for negotiating: find ways to make them see it in a different light.

L

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

Frayed at the edges.

datePosted on 15:15, July 13th, 2011 by Pablo

Coming home after witnessing the Singaporean elections in May, it has been interesting to watch the preludes to New Zealand’s elections in November. In SG it was a matter of all against one, with the “all” in opposition being heavily constrained in what they could  do or say by the ruling party. Even so, opposition to the PAP gained parliamentary seats and an increased popular vote. Voter turnout was higher than in previous years, and the youth vote was an important factor in the outcome. There was a clear dividing line between pro-regime and opposition parties, with political identities drawn over issues of authoritarian efficiency versus increased accountability, material entitlements, transparency and representation. There was a focus to the electoral debate.

It seems that in New Zealand there is no such clear-cut divide along the political centre. Instead there exists a political spectrum that is frayed along the edges and which has an ideological void in the middle.  ACT is splintering, as did the Maori Party once Hone Harawira quit. The common denominator is that on both ends of the New Zealand electoral divide, where the most ideological elements of political society reside, there is a complete lack of unity, much less understanding of the need for a common class line. This plays into the hands of the mainstream parties. At the risk of over-simplification and claiming no particular expertise, let me sketch the broad contours.

The putsch against Rodney Hide was a triumph of the market ideologues over the social conservatives in the ACT party. The Garrett scandal, the odd views of some of its MPs and Hide’s increasingly populist rhetoric are seen as deviations from the neoliberal market ideology that is supposedly the core of the ACT belief system. When Hide became vulnerable over his use of taxpayer money (the perk-buster was found to be more of a perk-consumer), the market ideologues moved against him. Concerned about demographics, ACT has managed to secure a commitment to stand from an influential female ex pat blogger with a reputation for brutal honesty and corporate savvy. It also recruited a farmer.

Once the Don was installed as the new Leader, ACT showed another face–that of racial revanchist. Crossing the market ideologue/social conservative divide, there is some serious opposition within ACT to maori redistributive claims and the erosion of Pakeha prerogatives under the banner of political correctness. Rather than delve into the reasons for its opposition, ACT has chosen to publicly focus on individual maori that it describes as extremists who are holding the country financially hostage with their ongoing demands. Among these is Hone Harawira. This is not a view shared by all market ideologues in the party, so the “white cowards” have been called out by the revanchists. What is lost in the intra-party discussion about identity and cultural claims is the common class line that ostensibly binds ACT together–that of the trade-oriented corporate elite. Whatever they think in private, this elite is bound to be horrified by the presence of racial revanchists in the Party, which could reduce the amount of material and political support that they will pledge to it. Absent a coherent structural underpinning to its other ideological claims, ACT has little to offer even them.

The Maori Party has done likewise. It was never a progressive party, but instead is a socially conservative vehicle that represents the interests of the maori economic elite and important iwi (specifically, leadership hierarchies). Its major focus is on ownership within the legal structures as given, and on specific budgetary earmarks for maori given Crown obligations under the Treaty. This is a source of division with the likes of Harawira, who sees things from a working class, indigenous sovereignty perspective.

The Mana Party is a reflection of the latter view, to which have been added those of assorted communists, socialists, anarchists and maori rights activists who can be roughly divided between (mostly Pakeha) anti-imperialists and (mostly maori)  indigenous sovereignty supporters. There is considerable overlap between the two camps, although the issue of native ownership is a thorny subject for the marxists. Here too there is a lack of a consistent class line, or structural foundation, upon which to build the cultural and socio-political bases of the party. Some in Mana put indigenous rights above all other things; others put working class interests to the fore. Neither side has a realistic economic agenda given New Zealand’s structural realities.

There is also a cult of personality aspect to Mana that belies its progressive label. Rather than represent a Kiwi version of Malcolm X as some have suggested, Hone is more akin to the Reverend Al Sharpton. He is loud, he is proud, but he is not exactly a revolutionary threat to the system. Unlike X, who did not allow whites into his party and who preached on the merits of  voluntary self-segregation and the need for a separate black state within the US based upon economic independence, Hone accepts Pakeha support while fulminating against colonial injustices and their modern legacies. He acts as an agent provocateur rather than an agent for change. Given the views of the anti-capitalists in the Mana party whose priorities are more class-based than identity-driven, this does not make for ideological coherence between the base and the leader.

The Greens have moved away from their Left origins and settled into the role of responsible middle class party with a focus on sustainable development. Having mostly removed the red from the party watermelon, the second generation of Green party leaders have become the preferred channel of expression for environmentally aware voters with an interest in universal rights, egalitarianism, sovereignty and non-intervention (to include opposition to trade agreements without environmental and human rights provisions). This makes it a comfortable partner for Labour, a bridge between the Maori and Mana parties in areas of common concern, and an inoffensive adversary of National that can be worked with on specific issues. In spite of their attractiveness to the enlightened bougeousie, the Greens have no class line.

The absence of strong class orientations, be it Right or Left, along the fringe of NZ politics is  in part a deliberate result of the blurring of class lines and focus on economic individualism promoted over the least two decades by the two major parties. Both parties subscribe to market-driven logics, tempered by populist appeals around election time. Both represent the interests of corporate, rather than class actors–National defends the logic of the Round Table while Labour defends that of the union movement and domestic market capitalists. Neither represents the interests of a given class, but instead attempt to cross over voter preferences with catch-all appeals oriented towards the economic centre: the salaried middle classes. The latter are the swing voters who are less inclined to see themselves as a distinct interest group, are less ideological in their views, and who have not collectively organised to that effect. By  targeting this segment of the electorate the mainstream parties are able to give the interests of their supporting corporate class fractions much broader political appeal.

In New Zealand the electoral fringe holds less popular sway than before, and has less of an influence on mainstream politics. It will not matter in November’s electoral math, and some parties may well disappear. This is a pity because at a minimum the ideological fringe in an MMP system is useful as a means of keeping the centrist parties more honest when it comes to issues of class, race and public policy interest. Ideally, fringe parties provide the outer ideological markers that frame policy debate at any given moment. Absent a coherent ideology embedded in a class line amongst fringe parties, the parameters for policy debate narrow considerably. Given non-ideological competition between the major parties, this leads to unrepresentative distortions in the way in which policy reform is argued and made.

Admittedly, this is a very broad, subjective and impressionistic overview. Supporters of the parties in question will no doubt take exception to my views. Others will see my emphasis misplaced or that I am just plain wrong on specifics. I will happily stand corrected where necessary. What I have tried to do is not argue the details but note the larger trend. The lack of a class line in New Zealand’s political fringe is both a product and a reinforcement of the corporatisation of mainstream politics and popular culture, with policy debates stripped of structurally-based ideological content and confined to those areas in which corporate solutions are possible. Stripping ideological content from public policy debates diminishes the quality of democracy. In a society anchored in structural inequalities (however mystified by issues of identity and post-modernism), the absence of class-based ideological debate leaves the field of politics open to corporate elite domination, no matter how much “trickle down” policy proposals are offered during political campaigns. There is, in other words, no substantive class focus to political debate even during elections.

In November we will be reminded of that fact.

 

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