Posts Tagged ‘National’

Ducking for Cover

datePosted on 16:56, August 15th, 2014 by Pablo

It has been fun watching National and its minions duck for cover, throw up smokescreens, attempt diversions and resort to slander and defamation in response to Nicky Hager’s book. I am not sure that the revelations will have an impact outside of political circles and a media that has heretofore treaded carefully around the Prime Minister and his key lieutenants, so am not confident that they will sway the upcoming election even if more unsavoury news comes out about how National plays dirty. Perhaps as the first in a one-two punch that has Glen Greenwald’s  presentation on New Zealand’s spying activities on Sept 17 as the follow up, Hager’s  revelations will stir voters from their complacency and undermine public confidence in John Key’s leadership.

That remains to be seen, especially since the All Blacks have started their season.

What I do think is that staff members of agencies mentioned in the book and assorted hangers-on and wanna-be’s who are part of or have links to the network of informants and dirt-mongerers that underpin National’s dirty tricks operations are bound to be running pretty scared.  As such, they are the Achilles Heel of National’s dirty tricks operations now that they risk being exposed. Imagine if you are a staffer for a Minister or a corporate executive that exchanged information or money with Slater in return for favourable coverage or smears on opponents? Would you not see that the ugly head of plausible deniability would likely rest on blaming someone in a subordinate position who can be sacrificed in order to save the ship? Would it not by prudent to bail out early rather than be the sacrificial lamb?

Imagine if you are a local Tory candidate or some other useful blogging fool who fed information to Whaleoil’s network on the personal affairs of opponents in order to discredit or blackmail them in the hope of Slater giving you a positive plug, and now realise that your communications are in Hager’s hands (because it is pretty clear from Nicky’s comments that there is more in his possession than what is in the book). Would you not be scrambling through your email and other communications records with the dirty tricks network to see what damage could be headed your way? Would you not be concerned about your career or livelihood once the dishonesty and depths to which you stooped are revealed? Aaron Bhatnagar, Kathryn Rich and some minor Rightwing bloggers come to mind, but there are plenty of others.

Of course, it is the corporate executives and politicians that work with Whaleoil who have the most to lose, but before they do they can take down many others with them. Thus the rational thing to do is for the rats to abandon the sinking ship rather than go down with it. Assuming that the media does its job and delves into the revelations and implications of Hager’s book, the rats will be flushed out. That is why I anticipate much more amusement to come.

One postscript: What Left-leaning blogs do in NZ is no way comparable to what Slater does, nor is what he does politics as usual in a civilised democracy. Lefties may gossip obliquely about Righties’ private lives and may say nasty things about them in their blogs, but none that I know of, including those that are strident and hysterical in nature, resort to trawling the opposition gutter in search of salacious or embarrassing personal details, publishing privileged information, printing interest group press releases under false pretences and colluding with public officials and private firms to denigrate and smear perceived opponents.  It is one thing to openly accept union money or to have party members blogging under pseudonyms in support of Left parties or causes; it is quite another to under-handedly pollute the political blogosphere in order to destroy people.

The irony is delicious. After years of Slatering the weak, the vulnerable, the defenceless and occasionally those who deserve it, Whaleoil himself has been Slatered. After all, Nicky got his information in a Slater type of way. But unlike the original, Nicky Hager’s Slatering of Whaleoil’s network was done simply by using their own words rather than secret tip lines, unethically provided (de)classified government information, private back channels and gossip columnist innuendo.

It could not have happened to a more deserving crowd.

PPS: Slater is now playing the victim, saying that he is getting threats and that his private stuff was stolen (irony alert). David Farrar (who may be hyper partisan but is is nothing akin to Slater in my opinion) is doing a bit of the latter as well. Slater is also saying that the emails from Collins and Ede were on gmail accounts so could have been from anybody. As I said above, the denials and diversions are in full swing. Can shifting blame and finger pointing be far behind? People who are subordinate to or associated with the key players in this scandal might do well to get out while their reputations are still intact.

Culture, strategy and an end to the phony war

datePosted on 08:07, August 14th, 2014 by Lew

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, in business and elsewhere, culture eats strategy for lunch.

Nicky Hager’s latest book Dirty Politics (which I haven’t read, but here’s Danyl’s summary) seems certain to cause a strategic shift in the electoral landscape. It should give credence to some of the left’s claims about the National party, and turn public and élite scrutiny on the character and activities of the Prime Minister and his closest aides, including his apparently-extensive irregular corps of bin men, turd-mongers and panty-sniffers. To do so is probably its primary purpose, and the timing and cleverly-built hype around the book reflects this.

But what I hope is that it also produces a cultural shift in New Zealand politics — weakening, or at least rendering more transparent, the intrigue and back-room, or back-door, dealing that characterises this sort of politics.

The book apparently alleges that the Prime Minister’s office is at the heart of a broad network of nefarious intelligence and blackmail, where they collect and hold a lien over the career or private life of everyone close to power. Nobody is their own person; everyone is owned, to some extent, by the machine. Patrick Gower wrote before the 2011 election that John Key owns the ACT party, and Hager’s book seems to substantiate this, detailing how they forced Hide’s resignation, in favour of Don Brash.

That is culture, not strategy, and it exerts considerable influence on those over whom the lien is held.

Immediately upon the book’s release, Cameron Slater noted that some journalists, and some Labour and Green MPs, would be getting nervous. Well, good. If there has emerged some sort of mutual-assured destruction pact to manage this culture, ending it could be Nicky Hager’s lasting contribution to New Zealand. Let the comfortable and the cozy live in fear for a bit. This includes Kim Dotcom, who claims to hold such intrigue against the Prime Minister, and is the target of a similar campaign, though it remains in abeyance.

This is a phony war about preserving the position of political élites on both sides of the ideological divide, to the general detriment of the sort of politics we actually need as a nation. Unlike the original MAD pact, we don’t risk the end of the world if this all blows up — we just might get our political and media systems cleaned out.

At least that’s the theory. I’m not very optimistic — cultural systems are sticky and resilient, and clearly many people have much invested in them. As we have seen with bank bailouts and phone hacking, the system can’t be destroyed from outside, and the influence wielded applies also to anyone who might be called upon to investigate.

The final point is about intelligence and security. The book alleges that the Prime Minister’s office released information from the Security Intelligence Service to these people, and that National staffers illicitly accessed Labour’s computers. The documents that form Hager’s source material also were apparently illicitly obtained from Cameron Slater’s website during an outage. That’s probably the most serious cultural indicator: sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. We are well beyond due for a serious discussion about the acceptable bounds of espionage, leakage and spying, and if Nicky Hager’s book generates this debate, he will have done Aotearoa a great service.

L

What is success for Internet MANA?

datePosted on 23:29, June 10th, 2014 by Lew

In the previous two posts I’ve covered the strategic rationales behind the Internet MANA alliance, and how, even if they spend their money very inefficiently, they are still very likely to gain a stronger presence in Parliament. But what does success actually look like for Internet MANA?

This is a complex question to answer because Internet MANA, for all its potential, is a mess of vanity projects existing in a state of ideological and pragmatic tension. But tensions all resolve sooner or later.

Kim Dotcom: Disruption (a change of government, or 10%)
Of all these vanity projects, Kim Dotcom’s is the greatest. It’s hard to imagine a guy who donated $50k to John Banks starting a cyber-utopian radical-left-aligned political vehicle for altruistic reasons, and it seems plain that he means to prevent, by any possible means, his extradition to the USA on copyright infringement and money-laundering charges. This is fair enough from his perspective — he can’t spend his pile in a US prison. NZ is a well-chosen target: a country with a small (therefore shallow, cheaply-manipulated) political system, but, unusually, also possessing a reasonably robust and independent judiciary.

To get his extradition case thrown out, Kim Dotcom needs to change the government, and prevail upon an incoming Minister of Justice that he and his party are great assets to that government.

The likelihood of this is slim, because he has already antagonised Labour, and because the leader of his own party has insisted she will not be led on the matter. Other members of the radical left groups aligned with the party are probably supportive of his ideological aim here, if only due to generalised anti-authoritarianism and anti-Americanism. And the other branch of Kim Dotcom’s game is fame, or notoriety, and if he can put his disruption engine in parliament, he will gain that, and it may provide him strategic cover for other manoeuvres regardless of who is in government.

The other way it could happen is if Internet MANA shocks everyone and polls very high — say, 10% — which would ruin almost everyone’s coalition plans. This is also extremely unlikely, but clearly it is Kim Dotcom’s hope, and it would be the purest sort of success for everyone involved.

Laila Harré: A launch (5%+) or a lifeboat (3%)
Her return to politics with the Greens last year was welcomed, and the conventional wisdom is that her appointment to lead the Internet Party was a strategic coup. I agree. But as I discussed in the first post, the deck is stacked in Te Mana’s favour. It is plausible, if the alliance performs poorly, that Harré would find herself marooned amid the wreckage of the Internet Party as its only MP, or even outside parliament, when the Internet MANA agreement expires six weeks after the election.

There’s a quirk here: Te Mana gets list places 1,3 and 4; Internet Party 2, 5 and 6, after which they alternate. So if they win five seats or fewer, Te Mana MPs will outnumber the Internet Party’s. If they win six or more seats, the numbers are more or less even. This provides a strong incentive for the Internet Party to perform, and also suggests shrewd negotiation by Te Mana.

In the event that the Internet Party bring Harré only into parliament (four seats or fewer), or if Kim Dotcom withdraws his cash and the party structure is no longer found to be self-sustaining, it seems very likely that Harré would join Te Mana formally. While her history in parties of this sort is its own guide, I suspect they would welcome her and it would be a fruitful arrangement: a win, of sorts, both for her and Te Mana.

The Internet Party: A future (7%)
The Internet Party doesn’t really exist. Kim Dotcom exists and Laila Harré exists, but without them it has no motive force. It could acquire such force by gaining a very substantial share of the party vote (7-8%, or 9-10 MPs), half of whom woulf be from the Internet Party, which could possibly — not probably — become self-sustaining. Without Laila Harré’s star power and Kim Dotcom’s money, this is a hard row for Vikram Kumar and the Candidate Idol contestants to hoe.

Te Mana and Hone Harawira: The only way is up
Te Mana’s case is easiest here: everything looks like a win for them. They have one MP facing a strong electorate challenge and polling under 1%, with no money, who is almost universally hated by the political mainstream. Even a mediocre performance of 2-3% would see Annette Sykes and possibly John Minto join Hone Harawira in parliament, which would make for some impressive fireworks. Even if the party then has to fend for itself, as Kim Dotcom’s largesse expires, or he is shipped off overseas, they have been granted a rare opportunity to galvanise the marginal electorate, and that’s better than under any other conceivable scenario.

The Left: It’s complicated
Given Labour’s current posture towards all parties that aren’t Labour, there is no way that Internet MANA benefits the left generally in the immediate term. Many commentators — Phil Quin has a good example at Pundit — have argued that the mere existence of Internet MANA could return John Key with a clean majority and the ability to have his way with Aotearoa in a glorious third term. I think this is pretty plausible. By no means does the left look like winning this election. But Labour has been underperforming for most of the past decade, and it might be that an injection of crazy disruptive ideas from a weird agglomeration of old leftwing radicals and young idealistic crypto-libertarians is what they need to shock them back to their senses.

There remains the slight possibility that they will bring enough MPs into parliament to make a chaotic and unholy alliance of the left a just slightly less-bad alternative to the Golden Age of John Key. As an aside: the better the Greens do, the better for Internet MANA post-election; and if nothing else they should hopefully form a strong ideological and generational counterpoint to New Zealand First, which I fear starts to fancy itself as the UKIP of the South Seas.

Aotearoa as a whole
I think New Zealand is better off having this argument than not. Much of what Internet MANA stands for has been unduly marginalised and is due consideration; especially the emergent aspects, such as with regard to modern standards of surveillance, the relationship and competing loyalties of the state to the citizenry and to its international community, and to the comparatively trivial matter of copyright. These debates feed into the notions of sovereignty and the primacy of people, rather than corporations and institutions, which mobilise Te Mana, and there are significant areas of ideological overlap, such as the flagship Internet Party policies of free tertiary education, withdrawal from the TPPA, severe constraints on the GCSB and other security and intelligence services, and — less popular with Hone Harawira than with his voters — the decriminalisation of marijuana. These are debates worth having, and we will be better off for having had them, whether the major parties want to or not.

L

Doubloons

datePosted on 09:32, June 10th, 2014 by Lew

Phil Sage in comments to my previous post about Internet MANA observes that “The question is whether Kim Dotcom’s money will translate into poll support and votes.” I have no knowledge of what’s going on inside the Internet MANA HQ bar what’s been reported in the media, but those reports indicate a large full-time campaign staff, and that will burn a large share of the money. Matthew Hooton was on the wireless yesterday scorning this approach and saying the money will be pumped into glossy brochures and Internet ads nobody will watch. Which might be fair enough.

But wait, we actually have some data! Each election, David Farrar helpfully puts together a breakdown of party votes won versus dollars spent (CPV). The 2008 and 2011 tables were stolen from DPF, with thanks.

2011 Election

In 2011, almost all parties spent less than $5 per vote — exceptions were the Conservatives ($32), ACT ($26) and Social Credit ($20).

2008 election

In 2008 the expenditure was higher and the field more spread, probably because the result was less certain and the stakes higher. (EDIT: Also, it appears the broadcast allocation was not included in the 2011 figures). The two main parties again spent less than $5, most others spent $10-15, and there were two outliers — RAM ($49) and Social Credit ($55).

Internet MANA in 2014
Turnout in both those elections was famously modest (2.2-2.4 million). Since both Labour and Internet MANA are trying to mobilise the “missing million” let’s assume turnout increases to 2.5 million in 2014, which yields a nice round 25,000 party votes per 1%. Let’s also assume that Internet MANA only spends the $3 million put in the pot by Kim Dotcom, which in reality will be higher.

The first point here is that high polling tends to correlate with low CPV. Incumbency and brand value count for a great deal. So it is unlikely that any new party would be able to achieve good CPV by any means. To match the major parties Internet MANA would need to poll 25%, in which scenario Labour would effectively cease to exist. Even though that’s only a little over half of the “missing million”, it’s not happening.

My guess in the post was that Internet MANA would get 2-3% for $3 million. That would mean per-vote spending of around $50, far higher than any of the parties in 2011, on a par with the unelectable outliers in 2008. I still think that’s the most likely outcome.

If they tank and gain only what the combined Internet and Mana parties are polling now (1-1.5%) they would have outspent 2011′s most profligate parties by a factor of three in terms of CPV. This has to be the worst conceivable outcome for Internet MANA, and even so, it very probably yields them a second MP, assuming either Hone Harawira or Annette Sykes wins their seat. Anything more than this is gravy. Te Mana teaming up with Kim Dotcom is, at least tactically, a no-lose situation.

If they match 2011 CPV outliers the Conservatives, they would need to pull at least 100,000 votes — a tenth of their missing million — which would yield 5-7 MPs and make them a force to be reckoned with between now and 2017, giving them a platform to profoundly disrupt the plans of every other party in NZ politics. It’s unlikely, but with this sort of money, it’s not impossible.

UPDATE: Andrew Geddis points out in comments that I’ve failed to account for the electoral spending limit, which prevents Internet MANA from blowing the whole $3 million on declarable election expenses, which is what the cited 2008 and 2011 numbers cover. The expenditure limit is $25,700 for a constituency candidate and $1,091,000 for a registered political party plus $25,700 per electorate contested by the party.

So all the CPV figures in that last table are about double what they will be in reality, which means the premise and conclusions of this post are rather weaker than they seemed.

L

Mongrel renegades, castaways, and cannibals

datePosted on 10:09, June 9th, 2014 by Lew

So Herman Melville described the crew of the Pequod. While it probably seems tendentious to equate them to the Internet MANA party, that seems to be how Kim Dotcom, at least, regards himself — as Captain Ahab, nailing his doubloon to the mast and urging them to seek the destruction of his Prime Ministerial Moby-Dick. But in spite of the many failings he, or Ishmael, attributed to them, that crew were good people, enormously effective, and very nearly successful in their hopeless task of hunting a single whale across all the oceans of the world.

In spite of Dotcom’s megalomania, Key — unlike the white whale — just doesn’t care that much. But in any case, the hauling-together of two unlikely vessels that form the Internet MANA alliance is more interesting than one rich eccentric’s personal grudge, or his attempts to avoid extradition.

The conventional reading of Internet MANA — even among some on the left — is that Kim Dotcom has colonised the Mana movement, buying himself a tame savage who’ll do his dirty work for him. But I don’t think so: I think the Internet Party is trying to bite off more than it can chew.

The Mana movement has always been about those outside the political mainstream. Even while he was forced into collaboration, Hone Harawira was plain about his radicalism. His legacy — barring some major change — is unlikely to be that period, or Te Mana, but the previous three decades of dogged activism in service of his people. One of these was his role in the haka party incident which demonstrated — or rather, reiterated after a long hiatus — to Pākehā New Zealand that Māori were’t going to take it.

Even so, if it were just Harawira this colonisation line might be fair — he’s a tough and principled guy, but running a fringe party without a benefactor — in the form of an electoral liege, or a millionaire backer, or both — is hard going. (Ask Winston Peters.) But Harawira is not alone. Both Annette Sykes and John Minto have decades of unglamorous and largely unrewarded activism behind them, and enormous credibility. Not among the National and Labour-voting public, but in radical and Māori circles, where it counts for their purposes. There is clearly some division — Sue Bradford quit the party, prompting a rush of right-wingers who have for decades said the most vile things about her to praise her integrity. But all in all, few people who know them believe that all of Harawira, Minto, and Sykes can be bought, in one go.

To which add Laila Harré. Many people have written that her appointment as leader of the Internet Party brings it credibility, and I agree. It is a brave, or reckless, appointment from Kim Dotcom’s perspective, because Harré is bigger than he is and, if elected, will influence the party more by leading it than he will by funding it — especially when his largesse runs out, as it inevitably will. Her parliamentary achievements have been limited because of her commitment to activism, but her record outside parliament has been more significant. She has demonstrated she can’t be bought, and is willing to hold her own line and walk away from a bad political situation, even when the stakes are very high.

What’s cleverest about this alliance is how neatly it separates ends and means. Morgan Godfery has argued persuasively that the alliance is a deeply conventional bit of strategy and an obvious next-step, from a Māori nationalist perspective, both mainstream and nationalist-insurgent political vehicles for Tino Rangatiratanga having been thoroughly co-opted by mainstream (white) imperatives. I would say further that it indicates a strategic maturity we have not yet seen from Māori parliamentary parties, and an elaboration of the māori party’s strategy of pragmatic coupling, though this time, to a vehicle it can more readily control. At least in this case, the Internet Party’s agenda is clear.

The two parties seem incongruous, and they are — but what they have in common is a claim to stand for those who feel like mainstream politics doesn’t speak for them, or listen to them. Both parties have links to the Occupy movement, and the policy platforms are pitched at groups with some core interests in common: those who are (or feel) criminalised or oppressed by the mainstream, and who wish to disrupt it. These include tech-libertarians and utopian futurists, internet “pirates” and disaffected geeks, anti-GCSB and TPPA activists, land rights and Māori sovereignty activists, actual socialists (as opposed to the Labour kind), the very poor and economically marginalised (especially rural, Māori), marijuana smokers, and a more fringey element of anti-Fluoride campaigners and other assorted cranks and conspiracists. In aggregate it seems clear that these people comprise more than 5% of the electorate — if only you can get them to vote. And that’s what Kim Dotcom’s millions are for: not so much to persuade them of a single, coherent policy platform, but to fly a radical banner to which the disruptors can flock. For this purpose they need not be all of one kind.

Te Mana has its own marginal voters, which comprise less than 1% of the electorate, and because of the difficulty of persuading it seems unlikely the Internet Party will mobilise much more. But a party vote total of 1.5% should see a second MP, and anything much above 2% should see a third, and this does not seem totally implausible. Even if these are “new” voters — not drawn from Labour or Greens — this probably comes at cost to the wider left if mainstream swing-voters are scared from Labour to National by the prospect of a left coalition including Internet MANA, as Danyl and Russell Brown have suggested. It might well be that the success of Internet MANA weakens Labour’s prospects, but it seems to have little chance of victory anyway, and has declared against Internet MANA, so a robust challenge from the left — as well as the one it has had from John Key on the right — is probably a good thing in the long term. What cares Mana for the neoliberal Pākehā Labour party’s fortunes?

Paradoxically, the addition of Internet Party voters would give Mana voters a stronger chance at locking the Internet party — and Harré — out if they are suspicious of Kim Dotcom’s influence. Harawira is facing a strong challenge in Te Tai Tokerau, but Waiariki is also close. If Labour, Green or Māori party voters tactically support Annette Sykes, hers could be the anchor seat. In this case, the second MP (whether he wins Te Tai Tokerau or not) would be Hone Harawira, with Harré third. Given that two or three MPs seems much more plausible than four or five, the most likely outcome seems to be that Te Mana is no worse off, possibly better off, and has a chance to swap Sue Bradford for the much more politically-viable Laila Harré. It looks less like the Internet Party colonising the Mana movement than the opposite.

L

The hazards of MMP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because functionality is what matters, not perfection.

L

I have noted with growing despair the xenophobia which is becoming a political commonplace this election cycle. On the left it’s about house prices.* But this post is not about racism; it’s about development.

The national median house price is $415,000, a figure skewed substantially upwards by the extraordinary cost of housing in Auckland. But you can buy a three bedroom house in Taumarunui for $26,000, or for $67,000 in Tokoroa. These are extreme examples, but for considerably less than half the median price you can buy a charming colonial villa in Tapanui ($149,500). For a little more than half the median you can buy a newly-renovated house on an acre in central Gisborne ($225,000). Similar houses are available for not very much more money in larger regional centres like Dunedin and New Plymouth, and that’s without considering many apartments, townhouses and more modest types of dwelling.

There are houses out there: there just aren’t jobs to go with them.

The chart above shows income and employment growth by region, and this is why the houses are so cheap. The growth is just not there. (From the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Regional Economic Activity Report 2013).

Opportunity
It’s not just jobs, though; there’s more to life than work. People need confidence in their opportunities in a new place before they will, as Jolisa Gracewood says, buy shares in that community by owning or renting a house there and settling down. They need schools and hospitals and civic institutions and a sense of belonging, they need certainty about their community’s future, and their future within it.

The community likewise needs needs certainty in its new arrivals. A gold rush or an oil boom might provide jobs and cash, but it doesn’t provide certainty for either group. Certainty — and opportunity — comes from deep and sustained development. The fly-in/fly-out mining towns in Australia are a good example, and while that industry has been instrumental in maintaining Australia’s robust economy, its direct value to the regions has been limited — trickling down, lifting all boats — without the adoption of targeted development initiatives such as Royalties for Regions, which seek to return a share of the proceeds of industry to local communities.

As Eric Crampton said about the census income growth figures, increases in average wages across much of the South Island have been coupled with decreases in population, as people on low incomes move in search of better-paying work. Rob Salmond agreed, saying:

The regions with the supposedly highest median income growth also had some of the worst records in population growth, while the areas whose populations grew the fastest had relatively little change in median incomes.

Returning to the MBIE chart above, notice the regions in the top-right quadrant: the West Coast, Waikato and Taranaki. These are distinguished by two characteristic sectors: dairy, and mining, each of which provides a relatively small number of well-paid jobs within a narrow sector, skewing up the income levels but not necessarily changing the overall development picture very much. As crucial as the dairy industry, in particular, is and will continue to be to New Zealand’s economy, a complete solution to development it sure ain’t. Which is why you can buy an enormous Moorish-inspired villa for $220,000 in the middle of gas and dairy country.

Diversification and specialisation
The object of a regional development policy must be to promote structural change, to create industries and communities that are sustainable in their own right — neither transient nor exhaustible, and which attract people whose commitment is likewise neither transient nor exhaustible. These jobs need to go beyond the traditional churn industries like tourism, hospitality and service; though, of course, these jobs will be needed, they should be incidental to development, not its purpose. They need to be high-value and export-led — unlike, for example, our timber industry, and our wool industry. One of our key advantages here is our reputation for being clean and green — demand for premium food, the safety and quality of which can be assured, and including organic and sustainably-produced, is likely to grow strongly and we seem ill-prepared to meet this opportunity, as just one example. Another example is the potential of Māori business, which is as yet terribly underutilised.

In New Zealand we talk a lot about the roles of government in distributing wealth, and in ensuring public access to health, education and other scarce resources. These levers are well-recognised and there is at least a moderate degree of bipartisan agreement on their use. This is not the case with regional and economic development strategies, where there are deep practical and ideological divisions between the parties. I can see why the noninterventionist technocratic right parties like ACT and National are reluctant to consider — or even recognise the viability of — the sort of robust, hands-on regional development strategy that will sustainable economic and community growth in regional areas and persuade the frustrated and overcommitted residents of our major cities to risk a change. It will require considerably more input than building roads, granting mining permits and water rights to permit the extraction of value directly from the land. It will require a lot more than public-private partnerships and white-elephant monorails through virgin rainforest. It very likely will require PPPs, roads, and mining rights, though, meaning the left will have to reconsider some of its positions as well. It will require thorough investment in infrastructure, especially transport infrastructure, and purposeful community-building, possibly funded by a deeper cut from mineral royalties, a localised share of revenues from key industries, or loans from the government. It will probably require considerable autonomy devolved to the communities affected, and the strengthening — rather than the weakening, as is currently happening — of local government. It needs to be a little bit New Deal and a little bit Think Big.

Diversity is resilience, and our economy is very narrowly based. That must change. Different regions have their own strengths — environmental and historical, in terms of personnel and capability — and this represents an opportunity to improve the national economy holistically, by strengthening each of its component parts, rather than by building one economic muscle until it threatens to throw everything else out of balance. In many cases these nascent strengths will need considerable augmentation, and some will need to be developed almost from scratch. That requires significant and sustained investment in research and development — contributions to which the National government cut during the time when it was most crucial; when talent needed to be incentivised to stay here, and when industry needed to prepare to take advantage of the recovery, when it arrived. Public-sector research agencies can be beneficial in quite unpredictable ways, and when it comes to blue-sky research, patience can pay off enormously. If you’re reading this over Wi-Fi, you can thank the Australian government’s scientific agency, the CSIRO.

People and places
One obvious and direct means by which the government can influence regional development is by decentralising — by relocating government departments or agencies to regional centres. At a minimum, governments could decline opportunities to actively dismantle regional industries — such as Invermay — for the sake of short-term cost savings or change for its own sake.

It is clear that having a critical mass of mobile public servants all located within a kilometre of each other can increase efficiency and cross-pollination in government and business. Some significant new businesses — such as Xero and Vend — clearly benefit from strong cohabitation and the development of their own start-up cultures. On the other hand, in the past decade telecommuting has become plausible for a large proportion of people whose work is predominantly reading, writing and talking on the phone, and the major reasons it is not more widely used are to do with middle-managers wishing to retain some measure of direct control over their staff, which they label “team culture”.

There are costs and benefits to decentralisation, but it is hard to shake the sense that government, and the public service, are growing increasingly remote from the people whose interests they ostensibly serve. The gap between the experience of living in Auckland or Wellington and living in the rest of the country is vast already, and is likely to grow. Over the long term, as regional development improves, mobility will increase, as the economic and cultural risk of moving to or from a major centre will decrease, and this seems likely to yield an even greater cross-pollination benefit than that sacrificed by decentralisation.

Political laziness from the left
The reason the housing markets in Auckland and Wellington are refusing to cool is because people — both internal and external migrants — want to live where there is opportunity, and Auckland and Wellington is where the opportunity is. Blaming foreigners for the continually-rising house prices in Auckland is counterproductive. It’s lazy populism for the opposition to monger fear on these grounds, and it’s clear why the government is perfectly willing to let them do so: first because it cuts against the left’s political brand, and second, because it frees them from responsibility for what has proven a poor regional growth strategy during their time in government.

Labour and the Greens have taken strong and well-articulated positions in favour of regional development and smart growth but they’ve also gifted the government an opportunity to reframe what is essentially an economic development debate as being about housing and migration, when the former is a symptom and the latter is all but irrelevant. As a consequence the whole discussion gets sucked into an unwinnable partisan slagging-match. This isn’t so much a failure of policy, but a failure of political emphasis. It should be relatively easy to correct: they mainly need to stop complaining about the yellow peril, and start talking about the future of a country where wealth and innovation is spread beyond its main centres.

Although I disagreed with his dismissive attitude towards the marriage equality debate, it seems likely that the once and future member for Napier, Stuart Nash, will be an important member of the Labour caucus in future. Late last year he argued persuasively that the regions are crucial not only for the economic wellbeing of the country, but for the wellbeing of that party, and so for the wider left. As he says:

If any party only holds seats in Akld, Wgtn, Chch and Dunedin, then they don’t have a particularly wide mandate to govern because they haven’t got MPs in caucus putting forward the views of the vast majority of geographic NZ.

To an extent it is understandable that this hasn’t happened yet. Development is hard. It takes a long time and a lot of money, and in a political context where governments change no less often than once per decade, it requires an uncommon degree of accord between increasingly diverse political movements. With the Greens now forming a substantial and apparently-permanent adjunct to Labour on the left, and the emergence of new climate-sceptic and anti-environmentalist sentiments within National and its allies, this is a big ask. But it needs to be done nonetheless. The regions aren’t going to develop themselves; they haven’t got the wealth or the people to do so, because it’s all tied up in tastefully-renovated villas on the North Shore and in Thorndon.

Downsouthing
This is not an entirely theoretical discussion for me. All going to plan, at some point later this year my family and I will move from the Kāpiti Coast to Dunedin. My wife is going to the University of Otago to work on the postgrad study she’s been wanting to do for 10 years. We’d have done it years ago if we could — every time we’ve been to Dunedin, we’ve said we’d move there in a heartbeat if only there was work. Mostly what’s changed now is that I can bring my work with me.

The reason we live out here is because out here is where we could afford to buy a house on one modest Wellington income. The idea was always to move into town at some point, but that has gotten more distant, not closer, over the past five years with Wellington’s housing market proving largely impervious to the recession. So off we go.

We anticipate significant benefits. My wife will be able to do something meaningful with her life other than raise our kids full-time or working as a rest home carer, worthy though both those tasks are. Commuting into Wellington would cost dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars a week, and at some point both of us would inevitably end up far from our young kids when they needed us. But not least among the advantages is the regional arbitrage of continuing to bring in something like a modest Wellington income while living in a place where houses are, very conservatively, $100,000 cheaper.

But there’s the thing: unless you’re privileged enough to work in a field where you can telecommute (and bosses who’ll let you), or unless you work in a literal field, moving from Auckland or Wellington to pretty much anywhere else in the country is a big risk. (In Christchurch, the case is much more complex.) You can move, but for many people, the opportunity is just not there, and the risk of giving up what you have is very great.

The government that raises those opportunities will find favour with those who want to move, those in the regions whose economies and communities are boosted by new growth, and those in the main centres who wish to stay, or must stay, who will have richer opportunities for doing do.

L

* On the right it’s more about asylum seekers (National) and internal threats to the colourblind state (ACT). The only party that seems clean of this is United Future, for which Peter Dunne should be congratulated.

National Lite

datePosted on 17:29, May 15th, 2014 by Lew

It’s been almost a year since I wrote anything here. Things have been complicated. Anyway, this will — I hope, and circumstances permitting — begin a return to participation. All thanks due to Pablo for holding things together.


Answer: Nobody. That’s the problem.

Today was budget day. The carnage in Australia with Joe Hockey’s first budget two days ago was worse than even the Abbott government’s enemies had predicted, with deep cuts to education, welfare, superannuation, science funding and many other fields, including the imposition of a $7 surcharge for GP visits. The contrast here could not be more stark: a return to surplus not immediately thrust into lowering taxes, modest cuts in some areas, increased entitlements in others, particularly in support for young families, and notably the extension of free GP visits to children under 13 years of age.

I’m no big-city economist so I’ll stick mainly to the political aspects. But it basically looks like Bill English’s sixth budget — somewhat like the preceding five, but to a greater extent — does a little good and almost no evil, and that basically ruins the opposition’s game plan, which relies on Bill English and John Key being terrible ogres that eat babies, rather than supporting their parents with leave entitlements. When the man touted as the Labour party’s most left-wing leader in a generation is reduced to complaining that John Key has stolen his party’s policy — as if that is supposed to be a bad thing — things are pretty dire. The opposition’s increasing desperation over the past six years, continuously prognosticating doom over the horizon, simply looks ridiculous when the doom never arrives. The government has snookered the New Zealand left by simply doing what it said it would do, and as Pablo argued persuasively at the start of the year, that makes clear how lacking the New Zealand left is in its strategic vision. They — Labour especially — are relying on the government to do their heavy ideological lifting, and when the government declines to be explicitly evil, the opposition is left with nothing to say.

When your enemies move to occupy your ideological ground, it is an opportunity to extend that ground, replacing what they claim from you with more advantageous ground deeper within your ideological territory. The trouble for Labour is that National has moved towards them, and Labour are still trying to fight them for the same ground rather than staking out more ground of their own. Six years after the “Labour lite” campaign that saw them ousted in the first place, they haven’t learned. Today’s budget has been tagged Labour lite by commentators including Bryce Edwards and Labour’s own Rob Salmond.

Due to assiduous work by National, and a conspicuous lack of it by Labour, “Labour lite” is now more or less indistinguishable from “Labour”, and Labour has offered no sort of “Labour heavy”; full-cream Labour, deep-red Labour, or whatever other metaphor you like. Because of this lack of difference, the electoral decision comes down to competence: of these two groups of mendacious grey technocrats, which is the least likely to inadvertently screw things up, or intentionally, as Jan Logie puts it, f&%k people over? That’s an easy answer: Labour demonstrates its lack of general competence every single day. If it’s not clear by now that they’re simply not as good at being the Nats as the Nats are, when will it ever be?

It’s too late, now, to change this ahead of the election. The die is cast. Labour has — again — decided to rely on political meta-strategy like syllogising failures of judgement or conduct by individual MPs out to the wider government, and it might have worked had they any sort of foundation to build upon. But they don’t. Far from full-cream Labour, Labour itself is Labour lite. Light-blue, even; 98% Ideology-free. If they’re going to play the National-lite game, they at least need to get good at it.

L

Another National double standard.

datePosted on 15:16, May 1st, 2014 by Pablo

Maurice Williamson is forced to resign as Minister because he made a phone call to the police asking them to be undertake a thorough review and be “on solid ground” when investigating a domestic violence incident involving a wealthy Chinese friend of his who invested a lot of money in New Zealand (the same Chinese fellow granted citizenship over the objections of immigration authorities, and who donated more than NZ$ 20 thousand to National in 2012).

Judith Collins retains her ministerial portfolios in spite of revelations that she interceded with Chinese officials on behalf of her husband’s export company while on an official visit to China that had nothing to do with exports or trade.

What is similar and what is different about the two cases? They are similar in that they both involve Chinese nationals with economic ties to the National party or entities linked to it. They are similar in that the ministerial interventions were in violation of the cabinet manual regarding conflicts of interest. They also represent obvious forms of political influence peddling.

How are they different? Collins is a a key player on National’s front bench, whereas Williamson is on the outers with National’s heavy hitters. Thus he is expendable while she is not.

Comparatively speaking, Williamson’s crime was arguably less than that of Collins. He made a call on behalf of a constituent urging Police diligence when investigating the charges against his friend, then left the matter at that. The fact that rather than tell the minister to buzz off the cops bent over backwards to satisfy him that they were on “solid ground” before prosecuting is a police issue, not a Williamson issue (the Police decided to prosecute in any event, with Mr. Liu eventually pleading guilty to two charges of domestic violence).

Collins used taxpayer funded official travel to take time out of her official schedule to divert and meet with Chinese business associates of her husband over dinner in the presence of an unnamed Chinese government official at a time when her husband’s business interests in China were being hindered by official reviews of New Zealand based export contracts. Although she had no real business being there, she brought an aide with her, adding to the impression that her presence at that dinner had the stamp of official approval.

Of the two, which is more obviously a conflict of interest and which has the clear stench of corruption wafting over it? Of the two, which one would be viewed more dimly by the likes of Transparency International (the anti-corruption agency that habitually lists NZ amongst the least corrupt countries to do business in)?

Hypocrisy much in the handling of the two cases by the Prime Minister? You be the judge, by I think that there is.

Foreign Policy after the Election.

datePosted on 17:39, April 9th, 2014 by Pablo

Lost amid the distractions of royal visits, Mananet Party circus side-shows and assorted other peripheral issues has been the subject of NZ foreign policy after the September 2014 election. The topic is worth considering beyond the attention it has received so far. In this post I outline some (far from all) of the major areas of convergence and difference in the event a National-led or a Labour-Green coalition wins.

If National wins it will deepen its current two-pronged approach: it will continue with its trade obsession to the detriment of other foreign policy areas such as disarmament, non-proliferation and human rights, and it will strive to deepen its security ties with the US and its close allies, Australia in particular. The trade-for-trade’s sake foreign policy approach will see National return to the bilateral negotiating tale with Russia regardless of what it does in Ukraine or other Russian buffer states, and will see it attempt to garner even a piecemeal or reduced TPP agreement in the face of what are growing obstacles to its ratification (especially US domestic political resistance that sees TPP as a drain on American jobs, but also sovereignty protection concerns in areas such as copyrights, patents and strategic industries in places like Chile, Japan and Singapore). NZ will continue to try and expand its trade relationships with Middle Eastern states in spite of their largely despotic nature, and it will continue to push commodity specialization, niche value-added manufacturing and education provision as areas of competitive advantage.

On a security dimension NZ will continue its return to front-tier, first line military ally status with the US and Australia, and will deepen its intelligence ties within the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network as well as with other pro- US partners and in the field of human intelligence. This will occur whether or not Edward Snowden reveals the full extent of NZ espionage on behalf of 5 Eyes in the months leading up to the election, but the government will find itself under scrutiny and hard pressed to defend the behaviour of the NZ intelligence community in that event. Closer military ties with the US brings with it the risk of involvement in American-led conflicts, but the National approach, as it is with the looming Snowden revelations, is to “wait and see” and deal with the issues as they arise (presumably in more than a crisis management way).

Truth is, under National NZ will become another US security minion. One has to wonder how the Chinese, Indians, Russians and assorted Middle Eastern trading partners feel about that, especially if it is revealed that NZ spies on them on behalf of 5 Eyes..

National will conduct its foreign policy unimpeded by its potential coalition partners. United Future and the Maori Party have zero interest in foreign affairs other than to reaffirm whatever status quo they are part of, and ACT, should it survive, is a National mini-me when it comes to the subject. Winston First will not rock the boat on foreign policy issues so long as a few baubles are thrown its way.

A Green-Labour government will have a slightly different approach, but not one that fundamentally rejects the basic premises of National’s line. The Greens have already begun to soften their stance regarding TPP and trade relations, emphasising their interest in “fair” trade and after-entry protections and guarantees. Labour, which otherwise would have likely continued the thrust of National’s trade strategy, will back away from some of the more foreign-friendly aspects of trade negotiations in order to mollify the Greens, and if Winston First is part of that coalition it may place some restrictions on foreign ownership and investment rights on NZ soil.

Along with the softening of single-minded trade zealotry, a Labour-Green government will attempt to reemphasize NZ’s independent and autonomous diplomatic stance (which has now been fundamentally compromised by the nature of National’s two-pronged approach). This will include attempting to rebuild its reputation and expertise in the fields hollowed out by National’s razoring of the diplomatic corps, although it will be very hard to replace the lost expertise and experience in fields such as chemical and nuclear weapons control, multinational humanitarian aid provision and environmental protection. To do so will require money, training and recruitment, so the time lag and costs of getting back up to speed in those areas are considerable.

With regards to security, the Greens and Labour are in a dilemma. The Greens want to review the entire NZ intelligence community with an eye towards promoting greater oversight and transparency in its operations. That includes a possible repeal of the recently passed GCSB Act and, if some of its members are to be believed, a reconsideration of NZ participation in 5 Eyes. For all its opportunistic protestations about the Dotcom case and GCSB Act, Labour in unlikely to want to see major changes in NZ’s espionage agencies or its relationship with its intelligence partners. It is therefore likely that Labour will agree (as it has said) to a review of the NZ intelligence community without committing itself to adopting any recommendations that may come out of that review. It may also agree to a compromise by which recommendations for greater intelligence agency oversight and accountability are accepted as necessary and overdue in light of recent revelations about the scope and extent of NZ domestic espionage as well as its foreign intelligence operations (all of which will become much more of a public issue if Snowden reveals heretofore denied or unexpected espionage by NZ intelligence agencies).

The same is true for NZ’s burgeoning military alliance with the US. Labour will not want to entirely undo the re-established bilateral military-to-military relations, especially in the fields of humanitarian assistance, search and rescue and perhaps even de-mining, peace-keeping and peace-enforcement operations. The Greens, however, will object to continuing the bilateral military “deepening” project and will oppose NZDF participation in US-led wars (especially those of of choice rather than necessity). The Greens will push to further reduce military expenditures as percentage of GDP (which is currently around 1.1 percent) and will seek to restrict weapons purchases and upgrades as much as possible. That will put it as loggerheads with Labour, which will see the necessity of maintaining a small but effective fighting force for both regional as well as extra-regional deployments, something that in turn will require modernization of the force component as well as good working ties with military allies (which is maintained via joint exercises and cross-national training events).

What that means in practice is that the Greens will not be given ministerial portfolios connected to foreign affairs or security, although they will be assuaged by concessions granted by Labour in other policy areas, to include (however token or cosmetic) intelligence reform.

Minor parties that might be part of the coalition will have little influence on the Labour-Green foreign policy debate. Mana will bark the usual anti-imperialist line but will be ignored by Labour and the Green leadership. Winston First will extract a pound of flesh with regard to the influence of non-Western interests on the NZ economy and NZ’s security commitments but otherwise will toe the Labour foreign policy line. The Maori Party will be irrelevant except where there is international  diplomatic interest in indigenous affairs.

The vote on NZ’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council will not be greatly influenced by the election (the UN vote occurs in October). NZ’s chances have risen as of late in the measure that Turkey’s has fallen thanks to the increasingly autocratic and erratic rule of the Erdogan government. Spain, the other rival for the “Europe and other” non-permanent UNSC seat (yes, NZ is not part of Oceania when it comes to such voting), has been tarnished by its economic woes, so NZ’s relative economic and political stability have bolstered its chances by default. Even so, a Labour-Green government will likely be more appealing to the majority of the UN membership given National’s obsequious genuflection to Great Powers on both trade and security.

In sum, foreign policy may be a non-issue in the run up to the elections but that does not mean that it does not matter. Party activists and the public at large would do well to contemplate which direction they would like to see NZ steer towards in its foreign relations, and what international role they envision it should properly play. Otherwise it becomes just another elite game uninformed by the wishes of the majority, which means that when it comes to engaging the world it will be exclusively elite logics that inform the way NZ does so.

 

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