Posts Tagged ‘Helen Clark’
In recent months I have become increasingly concerned at the state of bullshit in this country. Bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt famously wrote, is distinguished not by its intentionally negative truth value (those are lies) but its absence of intentional truth value, or as Frankfurt terms it, “indifference to how things really are”. In the democratic context, this is the generally low-level governmental pabulum that we are expected to believe because the full truth is unavailable to those from whom we demand it (more on that later), or because there are more or less legitimate reasons why it cannot be conveyed.
Bullshit and its proliferation
I am concerned because the standard of bullshit that we are expected to believe from the government has declined. Bullshit is eternal — it existed before Key and will persist after him — but I am convinced that it wasn’t generally this bad under Clark. I may be biased in this regard, but I accept we were invited to believe some articles of truly egregious bullshit, such as that Taito Phillip Field was merely helping out a friend, or the 21st Century’s most magnificent local example of bipartisan bullshit, that the Ngāti Apa verdict would result in Māori owning all the beaches. But in general the bullshit we were offered was at least plausible. That is, we generally did not have to stretch too far to believe that those in charge did in fact believe what they were telling us to be something approximating how things really are.
That an official government source should believe this is a pretty low bar. But in the past few weeks, the Key government has invited us to believe a number of articles of bullshit that they themselves cannot possibly believe, including but not limited to the following:
Surely nobody is credulous enough to believe even the first of these. But that is what we are expected to do: to march along with the pretence that the government is not simply making things up to keep people from becoming angry about matters we have a right to be angry about. While it is not clear that all these are pure, canonical examples (some probably contain actual lies, others possibly honest obliviousness), it is clear that these cases were articulated without due regard to how things really are. They are bullshit.
What’s more, this is purposeless bullshit, deployed for trivial tactical reasons by a government which, it appears, is indifferent to the link between what we are expected to believe and how things really are.
How we know it is bullshit
In the most obvious cases, the bullshit needs no proof. A senior Merrill Lynch banker knows what overseas trusts are for, and the Prime Minister’s wide-eyed protestations of innocence are manifest bullshit. In other cases the bullshit comes from the pretence that things are not as bad as they seem, such as in the case of the food at Dunedin hospital, which Jonathan Coleman pronounced “standard kiwi fare” while patients refused to eat it, instead bringing their own food or going hungry, and while the DHB’s doctors are considering legal action to force a change. In yet other cases the bullshit fills the gap between the endeavours which have been claimed and those that have actually been made to improve a situation — such as for emergency housing, which was termed “incoherent, unfair and unaccountable” in an internal MSD review last winter, but which has not been fixed. Whatever the cause of emergency accommodation problem, the claim that the government is doing all it can to resolve it is clearly bullshit. In yet other cases, bullshit begets bullshit, such as when the head of MPI’s bullshit is revealed by the leak of an internal report, prompting the Minister to aver that there is no cover-up.
At first glance it seems that these are straightforward cases of lying — that is, that the heads of MSD and MPI are perfectly aware that they have misled the public as to these matters. But it is likely that those doing the bullshitting are themselves being bullshitted, or they could, if they chose, learn how things really are but have not done so, the lack of which knowledge means they unavoidably produce bullshit when called to speak.
To explain this, we must consider organisational dynamics. In 2008 computer scientist Bruce F Webster wrote a brief treatise on The Thermocline of Truth, “a line drawn across the organizational chart that represents a barrier to accurate information”. (Webster’s context is large IT projects, but the corporatisation of government means the same dynamics are to some extent useful to this context too.) He identified four factors:
So while the Social Housing Minister may well have been told of the review last year, this does not mean she read it in full or was substantively briefed on the implications of the policy, much less that she comprehended it all. The government’s relentless Pollyanna routine and commitment to achieving a surplus, and the concomitant constraints on new spending and general disdain for the wellbeing of the poorest New Zealanders shown across the government means that the Social Housing Minister is incentivised to not bring the matter to wider attention, which a real solution would require. That being so, she is incentivised to know as little about it as possible, so that if questioned she can simply bullshit, rather than having to admit that she was aware of the problem but did nothing. Frankfurt cites this maxim in On Bullshit: “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”
[Update: At least, this is what the Social Housing Minister tried to do in this case. But she failed, and ended up correcting herself before Question Time today. As Alex Coleman said, she tried to bullshit but ended up lying and corrected the error (with more bullshit). So it goes.]
This sort of thing is sometimes framed as the government or the minister having “other priorities” which, refreshingly, is not bullshit.
Bullshit is the enemy of democracy
But the truth will out. Even if we do not agree that policy analysts are optimists (I accept that this is pretty dubious), it only takes one or two who are willing to risk their position to bring an end to the bullshit. In two of the cases I cited above, we are only able to plumb the bullshit’s depth because internal documents revealing how things really are have been leaked, enabling a comparison to be made between that and what we are expected to believe. It turns out that where something greater than the survival of an IT project is at stake, some people will take action to blow the whistle on departmental or ministerial intransigence. This may emerge from a commitment to a certain political or policy agenda, intra-governmental power games, or honest, decent professional frustration. But whistleblowing recognises that democratic systems thrive on openness, truth and accountability, of which excessive bullshit is the eternal foe.
Whistleblowing, which Danah Boyd calls the new civil disobedience, and other anti-bullshit measures have become profoundly important to both global and New Zealand politics. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Rawshark, the Panama Papers leaker, and the unheralded sources within MSD and MPI all provide a check to governmental systems whose connection to how things really are is increasingly incidental. Boyd concludes:
The stakes are lower in New Zealand, but the principles remain. There is a long tradition of protecting and celebrating whistleblowers and other civil disobedients for exercising their consciences, and this tradition must be preserved. Incompetence, intransigence, and the cynical use of bullshit such as identified here are considerably more damaging to democracy than principled, non-bullshitty ideological initiatives, because at least with those we can see clearly what we are getting. If the government were to baldly state that, yes, New Zealand is an international tax haven and these are the benefits of being so; or that homeless people are not really a priority; or that fish being dumped overboard is simply a regrettable cost of production, then at least we would be well-placed to decide whether those were policies which we could support. It does not do so, because the political costs would be too great, and seeks to avoid those costs by way of bullshit. Whistleblowers and leakers require them to pay at least some of the costs of their intransigence. This is just.
The electoral risks of taking the piss
Finally, the problem with bullshit on this scale is that people in a democracy may come to rely on what they are expected to believe as a substitute for how things really are. People can usually tell when the two do not accord, but only with regard to factors that directly effect them. The poor will recognise bullshit regarding poverty, and generalise from that. Environmentalists will recognise bullshit regarding, say, the health of the oceans, and generalise from that. But in the absence of non-bullshit information, people’s rationalisations are often scarcely more useful than the half-recognised bullshit from which they emerge. As a consequence people tend to factionalise around the most compelling purveyors of bullshit-alternatives, which promotes epistemic closure and contributes to radicalisation and polarisation such as is evident in the US Presidential nomination race currently underway.
At least one state has weaponised bullshit in service of its ruling regime, and because of this Putin’s Russia is probably the most prodigious emitter of bullshit in the world today (though the other superpowers are not so far behind as they might think). Putin’s command of bullshit is so great that there now exists no democratic threat to his rule.
That is not true in New Zealand. Aside from the fact that we are not nearly so far gone, the long-term success of more or less bullshit-reliant governments led by both Clark and Key suggests that bullshit persists in government by the consent of the bullshitted. We tolerate a certain amount of bullshit, and we can often forgive its emitters, subject to one condition: that they do not take the piss.
While bullshit is ubiquitous, its current standard is, I think, too egregious for people to put up with. The government’s continuing reliance on bullshit could come off as disdain for the intelligence of the electorate, as Clark and Cullen’s did in their final term, when they told us that the Auditor-General was wrong about Labour’s misuse of taxpayer funds for its 2005 pledge card. One of Key’s great strengths is his ability to present mid-level bullshit as being pretty plausible, but the sort of disdain for the electorate noted above seems new. If people begin to reflect that the government is taking the piss, and ask themselves “what kind of fools do they take us for?” the results could be more politically damaging than any amount of ordinary incompetence or policy failure.
Posted on 20:51, December 14th, 2011 by Lew
For my sins, over the past week or so I have been engaging at The Standard again. It’s been a rather tiresome business (for them as well, I’m sure) but has yielded some lucid moments. One exchange between “Puddleglum”, Anthony and I in the bowels of an open mike thread has been particularly useful, and since it contains my views on a question I am often asked, I’d rather it not end up down the memory hole. I reproduce it here in full (without the benefit of editing; so it’s a bit rough).
[I originally said Anthony was the author FKA “r0b” at The Standard — this isn’t the case; it’s some other Anthony. My mistake, and thanks to the r0b, Anthony Robins, for pointing it out.] Puddleglum has a blog himself — thepoliticalscientist.org — that is well worth reading.
If Armstrong is correct in the following quotation (and this leadership race has all been about the ‘blokes’ battling the ‘minorities’ and the ‘politically correct’), then won’t the election of Shearer shift Labour more towards the right wing, social conservatism that you appear not to like about NZF?
“Shearer will bring change by making the party less hostage to the political correctness that still plagues its image. He is interested in things that work, rather than whether they fit the party’s doctrine. “
I may misunderstand where your ‘loyalties’ or preferences lie, but it does seem odd if you are supporting a shift in Labour’s focus towards something that would be much more compatible with NZF (including Prosser and Peters, neither of whom strike me as staunch upholders of ‘political correctness’), given how little regard you appear to have for NZF.
(As an aside, I’m not sure why Armstrong is so sure he knows Shearer’s mind – he’s obviously heard Shearer say more than he’s been reported as saying – but I guess he is a political journalist … It would have been good to hear Shearer say these things to the public if, indeed, Armstrong has it from the horse’s mouth, as his tone strongly implies – “Shearer will …”, etc..).
I’m not convinced by this argument that Shearer represents the forthcoming defenestration of Māori, women, gays, the disabled, and so forth as a matter of doctrine, although folk who hope it does have been eager to say so — Armstrong, Audrey Young, Trotter amongst them. Shearer’s MSc was on the tension between Māori cultural values and environmental resource management, and he has worked on behalf of Māori in that field, preparing Tainui’s land claim to the Waitangi Tribunal and looking at sultural issues around wastewater treatment in Auckland. I have as yet seen no evidence that Shearer represents the social “right” of the party either. His pairing with Robertson as deputy certainly seems to counterindicate that argument. He says he’s “right in the middle” of Labour, though I suppose he would say that. I am open to persuasion on both these points, however, and if such defenestration does occur I may yet come to regret my support for Team Shearer.
But I think there’s also a misreading of my “loyalties”. The much-loved canard around here and at Trotter’s place is that I want Labour to be an “identity politics” party, whereas, in actuality, I want an end to the infighting that pits “the workers” against other marginalised groups or seeks to subsume everyone’s needs to those of straight white blue-collar blokes. All must have a presence within any progressive movement. I think there’s a false dichotomy that to appeal to “middle New Zealand” a party must be just a wee bit racist, homophobic and sexist, because that’s what “middle New Zealand” is. I don’t agree; although I can see how that is one route to popularity, I don’t think it’s one that’s very suitable for Labour.
Notwithstanding all of that I do think that being able to break the factionalisation and patronage — crudely expressed by Damien O’Connor — that has resulted in a weak list and a dysfunctional party apparatus is the most crucial task facing Shearer, and I can see how this could be spun against him. But on balance, getting the overall institutional and overall health of the party back on track is the priority. As long as it’s not simply replacing one lot of factions with another.
It’s just convincing insecure pricks like Armstrong that they’re not missing out (and normal people who are perfectly fine), while they lift everyone up.
Been one of the problems with the left for a while – not taking middle NZ with them in their thinking and just expecting them to “get it” after it’s done and dusted.
You can see how the Nats do it better with their policy formation and with the task forces they set up, they admit there is a problem that needs to be solved in some way, get a team of “experts” in place, get feedback from all quarters then create policy based on it (even if they were planning that policy all along). It’s a great way to create a narrative that the electorate can follow to understand policy or at least get some understanding that a problem that needs to be solved exists in the first place.
If it looks in the slightest way controversial or a potential wedge issue they will use this method.
I think previously you’ve noted the importance of symbolism (e.g., in the early days of the MP coalescing with National).
There is a danger that the symbolic projection being attempted (‘we are ordinary New Zealanders too’ – whatever that means) can box Labour in when it comes to ‘judgment calls’ on those social issues.
Trying to benefit electorally from symbols you don’t really believe in (in its crudest form, ‘dogwhistling’) can bite you back.
I think, for example, that Shearer may well be keen not to “get in front” of middle New Zealand on any of these issues (wasn’t that one of the concerns about Clark’s government, for ‘middle New Zealand’?).
That’s fine and pragmatic, and doesn’t mean necessarily being a little bit racist, homophobic, or whatever. But it might mean muting your commentary and positioning on those issues a tad.
And that could make some, at least, leap from the windows rather than waiting to be ‘defenestrated’.
I think that’s the challenge with the more ‘centrist’ positioning.
PG, I think that is the challenge with a more “centrist” positioning, but ultimately the long game is what matters. It’s mostly futile to try to campaign outright on unpopular topics — or those that are “in front” of popular thought, as you aptly put it — when you don’t control the agenda. Clark found out in 2004/5 when Brash hijacked the agenda at Orewa after a very progressive first term, and again in 2008 when the s59 repeal became a de facto government bill about the childless lesbians Helen Clark and Sue Bradford* wanting to personally bring up Waitakere Man’s kids.
I daresay there will be a lot of ideological austerity shared about over the coming term, not limited to the usual whipping children of progressive movements, but likely encompassing the unions and hard-left factions as well (and much of this may be pinned on Shearer to frame him as a “right” leader, when his hand may have been forced by political circumstance.) The project is to rebuild Labour as a political force, because if Labour continues to decline nobody — not Māori, not women, not the unions — is going to benefit.
Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. My major stipulation is that whatever gets nudged out onto the ledge, as it were, is done with due engagement and consideration of those it impacts, not simply decreed by the leadership as being “not a priority” (and if you disagree you’re a hater and a wrecker).
* Notwithstanding the fact that neither are lesbians, and Sue Bradford isn’t childless.
These things occurred to me while making my daughter’s birthday cake:*
Endorsement games continue, with a range of people from across the political spectrum still out for Shearer; including Goff’s erstwhile strategist John Pagani and that notorious Mooreite Phil Quin alongside the rest of us Tory plants. Meanwhile, David Cunliffe has the endorsement of the Young Nats, here and here. Cheap shots, but it is the Young Nats after all. When they’re not photoshopping your head onto a dictator they obviously have the hots for you.
This sudden and spontaneous outbreak of public-sphere democracy is sending Labourite dittoheads into a panic; they’re convinced it’s a trap — one so cunning they can’t see what the right has to gain from it, but it must be something. It’s like they’ve forgotten what they believe; they just read Farrar, Slater, Hooton and Odgers and believe the opposite. Tragic. Those guys are good and all, but they only have so much power because so much of the NZ left is stricken with paranoiac idiotosis.
Meanwhile Trevor Mallard has it all figured out: the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy decision to endorse Shearer is not a trick to ship Labour with an easybeat leader (or worse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing) — in fact it’s a double-bluff designed to give Labour second thoughts about choosing the obviously-best candidate. (Incidentally James Meager, formerly of the now-defunct Mydeology blog, called this on Thursday.) Someone should redo the poison scene from The Princess Bride with such rationalisations. It’s positively Kremlinesque; parallels to the well-documented phenomenon of impending-collapse paranoia within authoritarian regimes seem almost too obvious.
Nevertheless, amongst all the bogus objections, I think there are two legitimate concerns about Shearer’s potential leadership. The first I noted in the Close Up interview: his presentation is not strong. He ums, stutters and hesitates, speaks too softly and lacks cut-through. When he’s been put on the spot he has struggled. He is much better at the set-piece but that on its own is not enough. What he does have to say is often very good; he is a very perceptive listener and he has a pretty remarkable grasp on a wide range of issues. (There’s a comprehensive archive of his weekly in-depth interviews with interesting and important people on the radio here.) That having been said, our present PM is akshully not the world’s greatest public speaker, and the public may view a less-polished performance as a common touch. Whatever the case, this weakness can be overcome by training; presentation is one of the few things in politics that can really be taught. Key and Clark are both great examples.
(Incidentally, it amuses me greatly to see folk who’ve always been focused on wonkish detail and hard policy, to the stern exclusion of doing anything that might win elections, now complaining about a candidate on the grounds that he talks a bit funny.)
The second objection is a bit more substantive, and was raised separately by Anita and by Chris Trotter, and also by Audrey Young: Shearer is reputedly aligned with Damien “gaggle of gays” O’Connor, and perhaps other members of what I have previously termed the blue collars, red necks faction of Labour. Because of this, Young suggests, a Shearer-led Labour will be “a more pragmatic party, with less emphasis on gays and feminists”, or as others might say, he might mean the end of identity politics. Leaving aside the offensive dichotomy between pragmatism and support for equal rights, I don’t think this necessarily follows. O’Connor’s views as expressed in his infamous “gaggle of gays” comment were somewhat archaic, but it’s not clear they will greatly shape the party’s culture. In addition, O’Connor has a point: homophobia aside, his critique of the faction politics of the Labour party has some merit (he also criticised “self-serving unionists”, Trotter’s latest target). Absent any indication that Shearer himself shares O’Connor’s unreconstructed views I think it’s a long bow to draw. Even so, I think the priority for Labour now is sorting its institutions out, and that will mean deemphasising some other projects. I can see this being a touchstone issue for some people; vive la difference.
Lastly, what we have before us is a Labour leadership candidate that can be supported by the right-wingers and former strategists noted above, Sanctuary, AK, myself and presumably because of his potential appeal to Waitakere Man and supposed opposition to identity politics, Comrade Trotter. A person like that doesn’t come along very often.
* Huhu grub cake made of rolled lemon sponge filled with fresh cream and bush honey, lemon cream cheese icing. Yeah, colonial-bourgeois Kiwiana is how we postmodern Gen-X long-spoon suppers roll.
I have little useful to add to the voluminous discussion about who the Labour party will choose to succeed Phil Goff. I’m on the outside. This is Labour’s decision to make, and I don’t have a dog in the fight, except inasmuch as a good opposition and a strong Labour party is going to be crucial to Aotearoa. So I don’t know which way the caucus votes are headed, but like any other punter I have views, and I thought I’d sketch them out anyhow.
First of all it is positive that Goff and King have not stepped down immediately, forcing a bloodletting session 72 hours from the election. Two weeks is, I think, long enough to come to terms with the “new normal” and for a period of sober reflection (and not a little lobbying), but not long enough for reflection to turn to wallowing, or lobbying to degenerate into trench warfare. Leaving it to brew over summer, as some have suggested by arguing Goff should remain until next year, would be the worst of all possible options and I am most pleased they have not chosen this path.
As for the options: after some preliminary research the other day I declared for Team Shearer. I am still somewhat open to persuasion, and he lacked polish on Close Up this evening. But he seems to have unusual intellectual substance and personal gravitas. His relative newness to parliamentary politics is offset by extensive experience in other fields, particularly with the UN where tales of his exploits are fast becoming the stuff of urban legend. Most crucially, I understand he is the least institutionalised or factionalised of the potential leaders, the one with the greatest capacity to wrangle the “political wildebeest” that is the Labour Party, to use Patrick Gower’s excellent phrase. This last is, I believe, the most crucial ability. I said before the election that the next long-term Labour leader will be a Great Uniter, as Clark was (although possibly not in the same way Clark was; awe and fear aren’t the only ways to unite a party), and while there are not broad ideological schisms within the Labour party*, it is deeply dysfunctional in other ways and needs to be deeply reformed. This is a hard task, and it may be that no one leader can manage it, and it may take many years in any case, but it looks to me like Shearer’s external experience and outsider status make him the stronger candidate on this metric.
One other thing about Shearer: he seems to have strong support among non-Labourites, including Labour’s ideological opponents. In the Close Up spot he was reluctant to declare Labour a “left-wing party” which will make him unpopular (though I consider this just a statement of fact). I’ve seen some tinfoil-hattery around this — “if people like Farrar and Boag like him, it must be a trap” and so forth. This notion that “the right” has nothing better to do than wreck the Labour party, that every endorsement or kind word is an attempt to undermine, or the suspicion that the muckrakers must surely have some dirt on a favoured candidate borders on a pathology. Such reasoning leads to perverse outcomes, and adherents to this kind of fortress mentality make excuses for poor performance, and congratulate themselves for narrow wins and near losses, rather than challenge themselves to build a strong, disciplined unit capable of winning more robust contests in the future. An example of this in the recent election, where a small but crucial group of Labour supporters abandoned their party, campaigning and voting for New Zealand First in a last-ditch effort to produce an electoral result in their favour, without concern for the strategic effects this might have on the party’s brand and future fortunes. In spite of the lesson of 2008, they swapped sitting MPs Kelvin Davis, Carmel Sepuloni, Carol Beaumont, Rick Barker and Stuart Nash for Winston Peters and his merry band of lightweight cronies. Plenty of dirt there; it would have been a miserable term in government for Phil Goff if the numbers had broken slightly to the left, and (depending on the intransigence of Peters and the other minor parties) one from which the Labour Party may never have properly recovered.
Ironically, Labour has those defectors — about 3% of the electorate if the polls are to be believed — to thank for the opportunity now presented to it by the resounding defeat. If the result had held at around 30% (and NZ First been kept out by the threshold), temptation would have been to revert to the mindset post-2008 election that it had been close enough, that the left had been robbed by the electoral system and the evil media cabal, and that little change was really needed. With support at its worst since the Great Depression, no such delusions can persist, and there is, it would seem, a strong will for reform within the party.
I don’t think the other two likely Davids would make bad leaders either (concerns about Cunliffe that I expressed during the campaign notwithstanding). Cunliffe’s platform with Mahuta is strong, in particular because it will enable the party to reach out to Māori, which they desperately need to do to remain relevant. Parker reputedly has greater caucus support than Cunliffe, and he is also apparently standing with Robertson, who is also said to be standing for the leadership himself. All three Davids are talking about reform, and it will be harder for any of them to paper over the cracks or pretend that nothing is wrong, as Goff and King did. But whatever their will, it is not clear that Davids Cunliffe or Parker have the same conflict-resolution, negotiation and strategic development experience that Shearer does. And they are themselves a part of the problem, having been ministers (however excellent) under Clark, and supporting and sharing responsibility for the abysmal strategy and see-no-evil mentality evident within Labour since 2008.
But the party must do what is right for the party. It is important that the final decision remains with the caucus because as the past year has shown, no matter what the public and commentariat thinks no leader can be effective who is at odds with his team. Ideological congruence also matters; Shearer may be have the best skillset for the reform job, but he may legitimately be considered too centrist by the caucus.
I’ve always been clear that I want the NZ left to win, but I want them to have to work hard for it. I don’t want easy outs, excuses or complacency; I want Labour to be able to beat the toughest, because that’s what produces the smartest strategy and the strongest leaders, and the best contest of ideas. I am sure principled right-wingers hold similar views; they are just as sick as I am of a dysfunctional opposition obsessed with its own faction-wars and delusions of past glory, stuck in the intellectual ruts and lacking in strategic and institutional competence, even though it might make their electoral challenge easier. Good political parties don’t fear the contest of ideas; they embrace it. So my hope is that Labour does not concern itself overmuch with second-guessing the views of their ideological foes, or those on the periphery, but puts the candidates through a thorough triage process and then lets him get on with the job of putting their party back together. It’s not a trap, it’s a challenge.
* The lack of ideological diversity is a problem; a healthy political movement should always be in ferment. But it is not the most pressing problem facing the party at present.
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.
Chris Trotter suggests that frequent and heavily-publicised polls favour the right and result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, depressing support for the left. Bomber Bradbury has made similar arguments in the past.
There are two parts to this: first, the question of whether polls are inaccurate vis-a-vis the actual views of the electorate, and if so whether they do in fact favour the right; and second, whether this, on its own, has a substantive impact on actual real-world support.
I am aware of no robust research on this topic in the NZ context (which isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist; although if it did I’d expect the many proponents of this line of argument to be citing it all day long.) So to kick off, let me concede that if there was a significant ideological bias to the polls it certainly could have an impact on voter behaviour. But I suspect any impact would be more complicated than the simple “low showing for a party causes low turnout and/or low support” reading of the “spiral of silence” model Chris cites (which is nevertheless a useful model). For one thing, it’s not clear that the impact is very strong in case of a secret ballot; also, the argument doesn’t take into account New Zealanders’ oft-cited peeriness about single-party majority governments in the wake of Muldoon, Lange and Bolger which could have a moderating effect, and it doesn’t take into consideration the usual “narrowing” that occurs in the latter stages of an election campaign as wavering voters begin to make up their minds. So I doubt the size of this effect on Labour’s polling at least; any shift should not be large, and certainly not sufficient to change the election outcome. However where NZ First is concerned it’s different — a percentage point or two makes all the difference in the world there, and whether NZ First returns to parliament or not rests on the collective spirit of Winston’s faithful. Assuming they still make up fiveish per cent of the voting population they must not waver, and must cast their votes together regardless of what they are told about the polls. If they fail to do so NZ First is out, and all those votes are wasted, and that is certainly an outcome that could result from widespread reporting of polls that show NZ First under the threshold (and one that could change the election outcome).
Note, however, that all that is contingent on those polls showing NZ First to be under the threshold actually being wrong. I’m not persuaded of this, and I’m also dubious about the contention that polls favour the right. As Bomber is fond of pointing out, the polls run in the leadup to the Auckland Supercity election favoured John Banks, while in the election Len Brown won handsomely. That’s important to remember, but it’s only one data point so I’m hesitant to draw meaningful conclusions from it, and if it’s evidence of anything, it’s against the simple reading of the “Spiral of Silence” thesis, according to which Brown’s demoralised supporters should have stayed home.
There is also some evidence out of the US to suggest that landline-only polls favour the Republican party over the Democrats (when compared to polling samples that include cellphones). It’s not clear is that this trend is also in effect in New Zealand. Based on no data, I think it has some influence, but our situation here differs in important ways; most notably, we have more than two parties so variance of this sort is more dilute and less zero-sum. And the likely effect would be ambivalent — if landline-only polls tend to exclude the young and the poor and tech-savvy urban liberals, they should overstate support for NZ First, not understate it.
The matter of bias isn’t readily testable because, as an Australian poll analyst put it recently when looking at bias between pollsters in that market, “we just don’t have elections every week to determine the true state of public opinion“.* There is also evidence to suggest that people’s voting behaviour differs in important ways from how they answer opinion polls. So we need to rely on other forms of measurement; proxies being measured against proxies. There are focus-groups, vox pop interviews and 75c text-polls and coffee-bean polls, and the Horizon poll with its radically different weighting system, but I see no firm grounds to believe any of these would be any more reliable than the major phone poll companies. One very strong point in favour of the usual sort of phone-based opinion polling is that it has remained more or less methodologically consistent for a very long time. This gives us extremely large, continuous datasets that we can plot against real-world events including policy releases, major speeches, current events and elections. In this regard they are much like audience/circulation ratings in the media. The utility of these well-established systems isn’t that they have no flaws — they certainly do, and much of the criticism is valid — it’s that they have a reasonably well-known set of flaws that are consistent over time, and we can use the historical record to make inferences about the present day (too few people, I think, are actually doing this, but that’s a different matter). By contrast other systems — Horizon, in particular — are less well-known, and serious questions need to be asked about the quality of their results. They’re worth watching, but they are not as yet a substitute for what we already have.
Returning to the argument. So if the polls systematically favour the right, and if they do so in such a way as doesn’t also favour NZ First’s older, wealthier and more conservative demographic, and if the extent of that bias is significant enough to have a significant zero-sum election night impact despite all the confounding variables of voter behaviour, then Chris might be right.
But that’s a lot of ifs, and a claim as bold as “polling companies and the media steal elections from the left” demands extremely robust evidence to be given credence. I’m open to the argument, but what we have here isn’t evidence, much less the robust kind; it’s supposition, and what’s more it’s supposition derived from partisan loyalty. The argument is unfalsifiable — if the election does deliver a substantial defeat to Labour and NZ First they will take that as proof-positive that they were right all along and the voters were robbed; if it doesn’t no doubt they will cheer those who battled valiantly and overcame the oppressive regime imposed by the forces of evil. In this regard the argument is nearly indistinguishable from that made in 2008 by the Free Speech Coalition who, despite their howls about Stalinist restrictions on political marketing, managed to help their political representatives to a handy win.
My view of Chris and Bomber’s general line of argument is that it’s more of the usual excuse-making and blame-shifting that I see from lefties who can’t bear that their tribe is staring down the barrel of a(nother) heavy defeat. It’s an attempt to make the evil media cabal responsible for poor performance, and to minimise the effect of weak leadership, institutional incompetence, lacklustre campaign and — in Peters’ case — public self-immolation during the last term. It’s a myth; something to keep the faithful warm at night, in the absence of actual victory. Myths certainly have a kernel of essential truth, but they should not be mistaken for evidence. Moreover, as regards Chris’ concerns about the election accurately reflecting voters’ wishes; these would have more credibility if his own history of respecting the solemn integrity of electoral politics was itself less one-eyed. He thunders:
This would ring less hollow if, following the 2005 election, he had not so cravenly excused the Labour party’s own admitted breach of electoral law as being “acceptable corruption” inasmuch as it served the greater ideological purpose of preventing National from being elected. Given that history, his complaints about polling and media conduct look like nothing more than an appeal to ideological tribalism with a bright red smear of electoral integrity lipstick on.
And yet, he has a strong point: if NZ First’s share of the party vote on November 26 comes in fractionally below the 5% threshold, democracy will have been poorly served in 2011, as it was in 2008. My personal views of that party aside, as a matter of natural justice anyone commanding a twentieth of the vote should be entitled to roughly a twentieth of the representation in Parliament. But however unsexy it might be, the solution to this isn’t injustice to attack the pollsters or the media. The argument isn’t supported by the evidence; even if it was nobody’s going to change on Chris and Bomber’s say-so, and we all saw what happened to the Clark government’s regulatory overreach. The pragmatic response here is to work towards reducing or removing the electoral threshold so as to ensure that natural justice is served and variance is less likely to simply exclude a party from representation, and to turn back to the process of returning political rigour to the political left by building competence, vision and leadership so it can succeed despite the obstacles before it. Less myth, more reality.
* Pollytics’ analysis plots polling companies against each other, measuring each pollster’s bias from the other polling companies. David Winter has had a go at doing something similar for the NZ context, though he has much less data to work with. While interesting, it’s important to reiterate that none of this addresses the concerns about poll accuracy vis-a-vis the electorate.)
Perhaps I’m reading a bit much into Jordan Carter’s declaration that he’s a libertarian socialist — as he said on the tweets, “it’s just a pun, an oxymoron. Which I found amusing”. So I may be overreacting in the particular case, but if you’ll forgive that, it’s made me look at and consider my own perspective in a way which lends itself well to writing down.
I think Jordan is cherry-picking his definitions; co-opting two existing pieces of fashionable terminology for the sake of provocative pretension. I think what he’s described is really just liberal-social-democracy of the relatively ordinary modern kind — a pretty far cry from anything resembling either libertarianism or socialism in actual history — and I don’t see what’s gained by smacking an ill-fitting label on it. But there’s a fair bit to lose. For a start, by doing so you alienate all those who really do call themselves libertarians and the socialists (though perhaps that’s not a great loss).
Moreover, as a matter of political branding it’s braindead. By applying what is, unjustly or not, heavily loaded and controversial terminology to what is actually a thoroughly mainstream political movement you risk marginalising it. ‘Socialist’ and increasingly ‘libertarian’ are markers of political extremism, at least in the Anglo world. They breed mistrust and fear, and rightly so: you can carry on all you like about how the horrors of 20th Century socialism and communism weren’t worthy of the names, but the fact is those were the names which stuck. They’re beyond reclamation. (I’ve argued this before, and I understand it’s not a line which is popular with wishful socialists, and you’re free to disagree — but I’d prefer not to argue the toss at too much length again; it’s really a sidebar in this post.)
‘Libertarian’, although Ayn Rand hated the term and its baggage, has been similarly redefined from its original usage by her heirs, and the authoritarian-conservatives who are busily colonising that movement (Tea Party, UKIP, ACT etc; collectively I call them ‘liberthoritarians’). Association with that lot is anathema to social democracy and left praxis of any sort. On the other flank you have the link with anarchism, whose symbolic currency among the social mainstream to whom a political vehicle like the Labour party must appeal is little better.
That’s all really just a preamble, though, to the following more important bit of the post, which is about my own rather amorphously-defined political perspective (bearing in mind that this is also a massive topic which I hope do deal with in about a thousand words and a couple of hours). The reason I think it’s daft and a bit pretentious to adopt titles like ‘libertarian socialist’ is that I’m less interested in what people declare to be their philosophy and more interested in the mechanisms they choose to promulgate that philosophy. Being a “socialist” or a “libertarian” or whatever else is one thing, but if your commitment to achieving the aims of your chosen creed is via democracy, that implies a commitment to fulfilling the expressed wishes of your society whether or not they accord with your own. If the electorate really does decides it wants a full-scale neosocialist agenda and votes in a government which will deliver it, a genuinely democratic libertarian movement will not impede the progress of such an agenda except by legitimate legal means; and by the same token, if the electorate seriously votes for the neutering of government and the implementation of a social-Darwinist Nightwatchman State, then a genuinely democratic socialist movement will grudgingly accede to that. The trouble is that many, if not most, libertarian and socialist movements are only democratic movements insofar as democracy is convenient.
Although I think I have previously disclaimed the title, I am essentially a democratic fundamentalist — I consider the commitment to democracy to undergird the rest of a political-philosophical agenda, rather than sitting on top of it. The reasoning is a mix of principled and pragmatic arguments which I’ve also made many times before, mostly derived from uncontroversial old-fashioned liberalism — that people have the right to determine the shape and nature of their society (right or wrong), that the government must answer ultimately to the governed, that there’s no other proven method of ensuring smooth, regular and nonviolent power transfer, and so on. For these reasons I have no truck with non-democratic movements on either side of the aisle; the authoritarian socialists who killed a millions in the last century, or the modern-day liberthoritarians who call for the violent overthrow of legitimate governments with which they happen to disagree, or those who argue that democracy is broken because voters make ‘bad’ choices (with the inference that, for society’s sake, the power to make such choice should be stripped from them).
Such movements don’t hold with democracy; they may tolerate democracy as long as it gives them results they like, but democracy doesn’t work that way. You take the bad with the good, on the understanding that you will have the opportunity to win back the fort and set things to rights again, if you can persuade the electorate that you’re worth supporting. So to merit consideration as a legitimate political movement, this commitment to democracy is a necessity. And to a large extent such a commitment — assuming bona fides can be demonstrated — is sufficient to grant legitimacy. For this reason, as much as I despise the ACT and New Zealand First parties, for instance, I do accept that they have legitimacy inasmuch as they generally conform(ed) to and support(ed) the robust, existing democratic norms of society. Regardless of the policy mix which sits on top of it, I can tolerate a genuinely democratic movement because in a robust democracy, you should only get away with doing what the electorate permits you to do.
Explained this mechanical sort of way it’s a naïve view, but to be useful, notions such of these do need to be considered in light of what lies beneath. Determining whether a given system constitutes a democracy worthy of the name is often non-trivial, particularly at the margins. Even within generally robust democratic systems, there exist distortions and imbalances which warp access to and exercise of power in favour of one group or another. There is even a pretty wide tolerance within which a democratically-elected government with a mandate to do so can fiddle with the levers, creating advantages for itself while not fundamentally rendering the system undemocratic. The authority of democracy is also not ironclad, it does not obtain outside the existing normative moral, ethical and legal frameworks of humanity; if 51% of an electorate decide it’s ok to slaughter all blue-eyed babies, it being democratically certified does not make such a provision legitimate. So in this way what I’m talking about it isn’t really democratic fundamentalism at all — there are sound arguments to be had all down the line about these and other factors, and indeed recognising and addressing the (many) limitations of democracy isn’t something to be shied away from.
The question of ultimate sovereignty also can’t be ignored. The ultimate authority for how a society ought to be configured rests with the people, and if this means that a government, democratically-elected or not, is acting egregiously counter to the electorate’s wishes in ways which democracy can’t fix, stronger medicine must sometimes be applied.
This is the reasoning the Tea Partiers claim when calling for Obama to be overthrown; and that Lindsay Perigo (now shilling for a noted authoritarian who is the parliamentary leader of a noted authoritarian party) appealed when he declared the Clark government illegitimate. But while some legitimate grievances exist(ed) in both cases, those calls were and are vexatious. In reality a stronger standard is needed to maintain the balance between democracy and ultimate sovereignty. Of course, in both cases the calls for insurrection came to nought — they were manifestly idiotic and consequently did not attract support; and moreover, in both cases subsequent democratic elections under the systems that both provocateurs claimed were invidious returned strongly in favour of the opposition parties, utterly disproving the assertion. In the New Zealand case, the incoming government repealed the offending Electoral Finance Act, doubling that proof (and then proceeded to enact something very substantively similar, to very scarce outrage from anyone).
Of course, this principle of the peoples’ sovereignty means the electorate can relinquish its power, vest it permanently or semi-permanently in some other mechanism of power. I’ll get the obvious out of the way now: this is what happened to the Weimar Republic; the existing democratically-legitimate rulers of Germany ceded their authority to Hitler, who enjoyed impunity from democratic censure (and, it must be said, who brilliantly exploited the constitutional arrangements of the republic to engineer the ongoing popular support for his cause and the ineffectuality of his opponents). What happened in the years following 1933 is an example of why a movement’s commitment to robust democracy must be treated as fundamental, but the ultimate recourse to power must remain with the people.
For me what it all really boils down to is the comment usually attributed to Tocqueville, that a democratic society gets the government it deserves. But this is both misattributed and misquoted — it was Joseph de Maistre, and the original quote omits ‘democratic’. The implication is that any society gets the government it deserves. A sham democracy exists because those governed by it do not demand more — more representation, more transparency, more robustness, more accountability. A dictatorship is such because its victims didn’t do enough to prevent one from becoming entrenched, or overthrow it once it had become entrenched. This is a harsh view, and strictly incorrect — there is little the Ukrainian peasantry of the Holomodor could have done to prevent their expurgation as a result of Stalin’s decrees, and nothing they did to deserve such a fate, for instance — but the essence of truth in the quote is generally that, in the final analysis, nobody has a greater responsibility or ability to ensure that their government carries out the wishes of the people it governs than the people themselves.
The purpose of the speech, and visit, was to install one of the core planks of the National party narrative about the Clark government — that it was at best unconcerned with the plight of said underclass; and at worst, actively cultivated such a demographic, which would be permanently dependent on Labour’s welfare policies and would therefore be a permanent source of electoral support for the Labour party. (So the ‘bribing the bludgers to breed’ theme goes, rarely uttered by anyone with authority in public but a commonplace among the usual proxies; check almost any General Debate thread on Kiwiblog from around that time for instance.) This is absurd in more ways than it’s feasible to explain here, so I won’t bother. Let’s just leave it at ‘the underclass doesn’t really vote’.
Nevertheless, the visit was a roaring success. Key, bearing smiles and gifts and wearing a tiki t-shirt, charmed the residents of McGehan Close and evidently persuaded them both of his party’s goodwill toward them and of its social and economic plan to lift them from their grim circumstances. The event culminated in Key taking 12 year-old Aroha to the Waitangi Day celebrations — a move full of potent symbolism, even if it was seen to be somewhat exploitative. Drawn out over a full week of coverage (at the time a rare commodity for Key, who had replaced Don Brash as leader just before the Christmas break) this was a highly successful stunt and should have been an early warning of Key’s great talent for making cheesy set-piece events ‘work’ and feel human. The sentiment he evoked in the people of McGehan Close was certainly real.
It’s just a pity the ‘ambitious’, ‘aspirational’ policy programme Key promised them wasn’t.
Joan Nathan, Aroha’s mother, remains on the DPB (having been let go from her hastily-arranged job working for National MP Jackie Blue) and struggles more than ever to cope, now with a sixth child. Aroha, now 16, is living in the care of Child, Youth and Family, which Joan says is the best thing for her, since she is unable to provide a decent life for her daughter. Nathan and others, although they believed in and voted for Key, are now disenchanted and universally express the sentiment that the government’s policies favour the rich, not the poor, and that they haven’t been helped one iota by the change of government; in fact, things have gotten worse. Not much of this is different than it was this time last year, when the Sunday Star Times visited the Close.
So far, so obvious, you might say — and it is; indeed this sort of outcome was very widely predicted at the time. But this is important because it is as strong a counter-narrative as exists for the opposition in this election year. It reframes Key as a faker, a charlatan, an opportunist who’ll exploit whatever circumstances will advantage him, without loyalty or the willingness or ability to follow through on his word; as someone whose focus is on boardroom issues rather than on peoples’ wellbeing. Discussing and reading around the topic on twitter this evening I’ve seen considerable criticism of this Campbell Live story as a cheap human-interest stunt, as opportunistic and exploitative (or moreso) than the original event. I couldn’t agree less. It is a clear, unambiguous example of an investigative journalist simply revisiting a story where much was promised, and measuring it against what has actually happened. This is crucial to its narrative value: these events reframe Key by measuring his own defining stunt — his signature trick — against the objective reality of lived experience. Theory and rhetoric versus real people, living in the real world governed by the policy built from that theory and rhetoric. It is a reality check in its purest form.
There are disadvantages to this narrative line, also, and the virulent responses to the Campbell Live report this evening — I believe I saw presenter Rachel Smalley shudder a little whilst reading some of them out — hint at them. One is the obvious suggestion that Joan Nathan and the other residents of McGehan Close could have done better for themselves, but have chosen not to; the victim-blaming routinely visited upon the poor by the less-poor. A more serious and related line of critique is that there’s a recession on, and everyone’s hurting. Or that it’s only been three years, and change takes time.
But hang on a minute — wasn’t the point of the whole point of electing a Key-led National government to take advantage of the resulting step-change which would boost economic growth, job growth, provide better opportunities, an end to welfare dependency, safer communities and a general increase in general socio-economic mobility and wellbeing? Key made all these promises quite explicitly, not just in person to the residents of McGehan Close, but to the whole nation throughout the campaign and at almost every opportunity since. There are no jobs. There are no higher wages, and without these things you can’t exactly buy shares in SOEs. There is no greater social mobility. The ‘underclass’, as exploitatively defined by Key, still exists.
Having failed McGehan Close, John Key has failed all of us. Quite apart from the fact that we were all promised these things, or things like them, and by and large have yet to receive them, a central theme of the ‘underclass’ policy argument was that by lifting people out of poverty and bringing then into the ‘overclass’ (? — this shows just how meaningless ‘underclass’ is except as a propaganda term), the government would make society better for everyone. This is a noble goal, and one I agree with in its idealistic entirety. I think you would go a long way to find someone in a position of any political credibility who’d publicly disagree with it. The first order of business for any opposition should be to hold John Key to those promises, and demand of Key the wealthier, more mobile, and socially healthier society we were promised.
But the most vicious response will be the one which the initial stunt in 2007 was meant to evoke — the notion that the ‘underclass’ are breeding in order to get more welfare from the Labour party. The core of this line of reasoning, if I may call it that, will be attacks on Nathan herself as a mother, having had a sixth baby and having had Aroha, the subject of the initial stunt, removed from her care. The attacks will be highly personalised, racist and gendered, and they will be lashed closely to Labour party policy and doctrine. But, assuming a competent and spirited opposition, that’s ok — the National party aren’t in opposition, 18 months out from an election; they’re in government in election year. Having been elected on a moderate, sympathetic platform with strong support from women and Māori, and looking to consolidate that platform into a strong and honestly-won mandate means that the government no longer has such freedom to dog-whistle. Particularly given that an opposition counter-narrative would cast doubt on all those sympathetic characteristics, the resort to the divisive tactics of 2008, such as trying to wedge ‘hard-working kiwis’ against the ‘underclass’, and so on, would be extremely risky for the government.
In light of my last post, perhaps it is a little glib to assume a competent and spirited opposition, and in perfect truth I don’t really think Labour has this fight in them (although Grant Robertson saw the Campbell Live piece and seems to have had a similar response to mine, which is heartening). But it is an argument waiting to be had, and one which must be had sooner or later. The boundaries are drawn up; media interest is already piqued, and this is a bread-and-butter social and economic justice issue for Labour. There’s a wealth of symbolic material and slogans to employ — ‘reality check’ and ‘by failing McGehan Close Key has failed us all’ are two they can have for free, and if a Labour party can’t base a campaign around ‘underclass‘ then they’re not worthy of the name.
Time to engage.
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:
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.
Posted on 13:34, December 12th, 2010 by Pablo
It is said that politics is the art of hypocrisy and that diplomacy is the art of saying one thing when meaning another. The publication of US diplomatic correspondence between its embassy in Wellington and other US agencies in Washington and abroad (see distribution list below) show that the 5th Labour government was much more closely aligned with the US on security and intelligence matters than it let on in public, and that the push to improve ties with the US crossed the aisle in parliament but was deliberately not made public for domestic electoral purposes.
Rather than read what others have to say about the issue, I figured that it is best to just offer KP readers the opportunity to digest one particularly informative cable for themselves. It is long but well worth the effort reading, and comes courtesy of Selwyn Manning at Scoop, which also has the most in-depth analysis of the subject. Of course, by my publishing it and you reading it we have both apparently broken US laws governing classified information.
I wonder if that means that I will hear the words “cavity search” on my next trip to the US.
98719,3/02/2007 4:55 AM,07WELLINGTON194,Embassy Wellington,SECRET//NOFORN,,VZCZCXRO2665OO RUEHPBDE RUEHWL #0194/01 0610455ZNY SSSSS ZZHO 020455Z MAR 07FM AMEMBASSY WELLINGTONTO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 3972INFO RUEHBY/AMEMBASSY CANBERRA IMMEDIATE 4773RUEHPF/AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH IMMEDIATE 0043RUEHPB/AMEMBASSY PORT MORESBY IMMEDIATE 0637RUEHSV/AMEMBASSY SUVA IMMEDIATE 0573RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHDC IMMEDIATERUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC IMMEDIATERUEKJCS/OSD WASHINGTON DC IMMEDIATERHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI IMMEDIATE,”S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 WELLINGTON 000194 SIPDIS SIPDIS NOFORN STATE FOR EAP/FO AND EAP/ANP NSC FOR VICTOR CHA OSD FOR JESSICA POWERS PHNOM PENH FOR POL/MCKEAN E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/01/2017 TAGS: PREL, PGOV, NZ SUBJECT: PM CLARK GOES TO WASHINGTON Classified By: Charge D’Affaires David J. Keegan, for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d) 1. (C) Summary: Prime Minister Clark has announced to New Zealanders that she will use her March 20-21 visit to Washington to discuss key regional and world events with the President and other
Senior Officials. In reality, she has a broader agenda as well: to improve the tone of her dialogue with us and to send a message to the NZ electorate that cooperating with the U.S. is normal and advances New Zealand’s interests. Now in her third term in office, Clark has over the years developed a deeper understanding of the breadth and benefits of the US-New Zealand relationship. She recognizes that sound bites matter, and in response has begun to modulate her public statements to be more positive about the relationship. She also strenuously avoids saying anything critical about U.S. policy. Although a strengthened centrist domestic political opposition may motivate Clark to be more open to us, most of her efforts to improve bilateral cooperation have not been made public, indicating genuine commitment. Over the past year, she has quietly filled a number of key positions with officials who are well disposed towards the United States, and she and her Ministers now treat official meetings with us as opportunities to advance common agendas rather than either public relations coups or something to deny. The PM closely monitors and supports the “”Matrix”” process as well as deeper US-NZ cooperation in intelligence and other issues. She particularly appreciates our cooperation in the Pacific and Antarctica. End Summary. 2. (C) A micromanager, Clark will come to Washington extremely well briefed on the issues. She will likely suggest small but concrete ways to cooperate within the boundaries of the Presidential Directive, such as by regularizing our dialogue on scientific and Pacific Island issues. She will probably announce that New Zealand will extend its military deployments in Afghanistan through September 2009. Clark will not seek any dramatic changes to bilateral policy, which she recognizes would be more than either side’s system could bear. Nor will she make a heavy pitch for an FTA as she did during her 2002 visit, instead leaving that for Trade
Minister Goff’s trip to Washington later this year. 3. (C) We should use this visit to urge continued tangible commitments to the improving bilateral cooperation and NZ’s defense modernization. We should also elicit a greater willingness to publicize our successes where possible. Clark will be setting the pace for improving U.S.-New Zealand relations for the foreseeable future. This visit provides us an opportunity to encourage her to stay the course and to resist negative pressures from those in her party who prefer to keep us at arm’s length. ————————————– MOVING UP THE LEARNING CURVE: WE MATTER ————————————— 4. (C) With over seven years in office, Clark is now the longest serving Labour Prime Minister in New Zealand history. Although she has no clear successor and may run for an unprecedented fourth term, she is clearly already focused on her legacy. Arriving in office well to the left of the political spectrum, Clark began her tenure by stressing New Zealand’s role as a small but principled player favoring multilateral (ideally UN-based) solutions to the world’s problems. Since then, she has witnessed such events as 9/11, cooperation between NZDF and US troops in Afghanistan, and shortcomings of the UN system (such as its inability to react to the 2005 Tsunami). As a result, she has over time focused more on New Zealand’s role in the Pacific region and its relations with Australia and other bilateral allies. 5. (C) Through learning on the job, Clark has clearly developed a more sophisticated understanding of the breadth and importance of the US-New Zealand relationship. Her desire to improve relations with the Administration may be due in part to the influence of Foreign Minister Winston WELLINGTON 00000194 002 OF 004 Peters, but we see evidence that Clark herself wants to improve US-New Zealand ties. Contacts tell us she has especially valued our close cooperation following the coup
in Fiji, and during her recent meetings with PM Howard she praised EAP DAS Davies’ trip to the Solomons. The Ambassador reports that Clark is obviously impressed by our dedication to environmental protection and generous support for New Zealand activities in Antarctica, which she witnessed first hand during this year’s celebrations of USNZ cooperation on the ice. 6. (C/NF) Recognizing that her Government had initially resisted improving the U.S. relationship, Clark has since the 2005 election appointed to key positions a number of officials well disposed towards working with the United States. In addition to Foreign Minister Winston Peters (arguably a marriage of convenience), she has appointed Warren Tucker as Director of the NZ Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS), Bruce Ferguson as Director of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), Roy Ferguson as NZ Ambassador to Washington; and John McKinnon as Secretary of Defence. Together with Peters and Simon Murdoch, second in command at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, these officials have improved their agencies’ coordination on U.S. policy and instructed staff to be helpful to us wherever possible. For example, NZSIS had for months resisted housing equipment needed to implement a possible HSPD-6 agreement with the United States. Soon after his arrival, Tucker ordered NZSIS to be the host, paving the way for negotiations. 7. (C) Clark has been more mindful of the public side of our relationship as well. She participated in the Embassy’s 4 July reception even though she never attends national day events. She was also gracious guest at a media-covered reception at the Ambassador’s residence last May in honor of her favorite Kiwi composer. Mindful that her 2003 remarks about the Iraq war have not been forgotten, Clark now slaps down her Cabinet Ministers for similar offenses. When on January 12 Duty Minister Jim Anderton issued a blistering critique of
the President’s plan to send more troops to Iraq, Clark quickly disavowed the comments and removed Anderton from duty within the day. She was roundly criticized in the media for her actions, but did not budge. After confirming her visit to Washington on March 1, a reporter asked what Clark would say if the President asked her views on the war. Clark merely said she doubted that would happen, adding that New Zealand is not in Iraq and it would be “”gratuitous to offer any advice.”” ———————————CLARK REALLY DOES WANT CLOSER TIES ——————————— 8. (C) Some observers claim Clark only wants to mend fences with the United States to wrest center ground from the opposition National Party, which is gaining in the polls. We doubt this is her main motive. For one thing, polling suggests up to half of all Kiwis believe New Zealand does not need a closer relationship with the United States, and the anti-American sentiment in the left side of her own caucus is well known. Although Labour is losing ground in opinion polls, Clark is far from being in such crisis that she needs to change her foreign policy to get votes. New National leader John Key is charming and confident, but has been in Parliament for only five years and his practical agenda remains fuzzy. In contrast, while many Kiwis consider Clark cold and some question her integrity, we have yet to meet any who regard her as anything less than competent. The majority seem proud of the way she has helped forge a new, modern identity for the country: clean, green, multicultural, multilateral, creative, and yes — nuclear free. Nor is there a chance of the type of leadership putsch within Labour that has plagued National in recent years. —————————————– WE BENEFIT FROM STRONGER COOPERATION, TOO —————————————- 9. (C) New Zealand is small, but concrete improvements in WELLINGTON 00000194 003 OF 004 bilateral cooperation over the past year, including
via the “”Matrix”” process initiated in Bangkok last year, have brought tangible, positive gains for U.S. interests. We continue to cooperate closely on events in Fiji and have come to value the views of Kiwi officials regarding events in E.Timor, the Solomon Islands, and Tonga. We are increasing behind-the-scenes dialogue on N.Korea and Iran, both of which have diplomatic relations with New Zealand. The “”Matrix”” process has also been helpful in enabling both sides to stay joined up in response to other events, such as ensuring that the recent fire on board a Japanese whaling vessel in Antarctic waters would not lead to an environmental disaster. 10. (S/NF) Improvements on the defense and intelligence side have also borne fruit. As Minister in Charge of the NZSIS and GCSB, Clark is read into all major operations involving U.S. intelligence. She understands the implications of a post-9/11 world for New Zealand’s security. She also realized after the Fiji coup that New Zealand had become too reliant on Australian intelligence. Clark grasps that NZ must “”give to get”” and that some of our cooperative operations — such as monitoring radicalizing Kiwi jihadists — strengthen her country’s security. But she also has been willing to address targets of marginal benefit to New Zealand that could do her political harm if made public. Over the past year, she has supported increased counterterrorism cooperation with us. 11. (C/NF) While the Presidential Directive still limits our defense relationship, New Zealand’s push since 2004 to modernize its forces have improved our ability to work together in those areas in which we can cooperate. In support of NZ military activities in the Pacific Islands, Timor Leste, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, there have been more high-level U.S. military visits to New Zealand over the past 6 months than in the previous two years. This March alone, there will be visits by two Admirals for maritime security consultations with New Zealand, France, and the UK, as
well as a yearly call by PACAF Commander General Hester. There have been more U.S. military waivers for multilateral exercises including the NZDF as well. Unlike in the past, the PM and her Government have focused on the substance behind these visits and exercises instead of touting them to the press as a sign that NZ’s nuclear ban no longer matters to the United States. New Zealand continues to be an active participant in the Proliferation Security Initiative, has helped explain the importance of this effort to Pacific Island states, and will for the first time host an Operational Experts Group Meeting in Auckland March 2628. ———- Key Issues ———- 12. (C/NF) Regional/Global Security: In her public statements announcing the visit, Clark has said that she hopes to discuss with senior US officials common interests in counter-terrorism/Afghanistan; regional security and good governance in the PICs and E.Timor; and DPRK, Iran and other nonproliferation issues. Although she told a journalist that Iraq is unlikely to come up, MFAT staff tells us that she knows that this is a major issue on the mind of the Administration. They also say she is likely to raise concerns over China’s role in the Asia Pacific region. Clark will likely announce during her visit that New Zealand will extend its deployments to Afghanistan through September 2009, the longest extension since the Afghan war began. She may also propose that both sides agree to regular consultations on Pacific Island issues. We agree this could send a positive public signal about our joint work in the region, although in reality fast moving events make it a certainty that we will continue to communicate in real time as well. We would also have to ensure that the search for agenda items and “”deliverables”” did not overwhelm our constructive dialogue. 13. (S/NF) Intelligence: Although it will be obviously impossible to publicly highlight the exact nature of NZ’s WELLINGTON 00000194 004 OF 004 intelligence cooperation during
Clark’s visit, she undoubtedly would appreciate having it acknowledged behind closed doors. We should also encourage New Zealand to agree to some public recognition of the HSPD-6 MOU that we understand will be signed during the visit. A public signing ceremony the Embassy hosted when we concluded the US-NZ Regional Alert Movement agreement received positive press play here, which indicates that not all intelligence cooperation issues are tabu to Kiwis. 14. (C) Environment and other issues: Since the Antarctic celebrations in January, Clark has become more aware of the close level of cooperation between US and NZ scientists both on and off the ice. She may propose new areas for cooperation in Antarctica and suggest both sides review the US-NZ Science and Technology Agreement to consider possible new joint research efforts. GNZ officials were struck by parallel references to climate change and sustainable energy in both the President’s and PM’s opening statements to their legislature this year, and Clark may raise this as well. She may also propose cooperation on efforts towards sustainable fisheries. Clark will almost certainly acknowledge U.S. leadership in WTO Doha negotiations. 15. (C) The Public message: Clark will deliver three speeches while in the United States. Unlike her speech there in 2002 on New Zealand’s desire for an FTA, Clark’s address in Washington will present a more positive focus on overall US-NZ relations. This reflects both her understanding that an FTA is not possible for now and her desire to speak to the broader relationship. Clark will deliver a second speech in Chicago covering WTO and economic issues (including a soft FTA pitch) and a third in Seattle on innovation in New Zealand. ——- COMMENT ——- 16. (C) PM Clark will continue to set the course for improved USNZ relations. It is clear there will be no change in New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy in the medium term; even the
new opposition leader John Key has announced that the National Party wants to maintain the ban. National also continues to be vulnerable to accusations of being too close to the United States, which cost it significant support at the 2005 election. If elected in 2008, the Nats will have more political room to work with us if they can build on progress made under this Government towards better US-NZ ties. A re-elected Labour Government will do the same. This visit provides a chance to encourage Clark to set the bar high. We may have setbacks along the way, but the better our mutual understanding of what each side can expect from each other, the less likely that these hiccups will undermine our progress. End Comment. Keegan”,2/03/2007