Posts Tagged ‘Phil Goff’

Fortune-cookie strategy and the Labour leadership

datePosted on 23:34, April 27th, 2012 by Lew

Since at least the mid-20th Century it has been fashionable in our culture to adopt postures derived from Asian martial manuals — most notably Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings — in diverse civilian contexts including business, and politics.* There is much to recommend in these texts, but too often they are poorly understood and are reduced to fortune-cookie wisdom, lazy magical thinking of the sort that’s only good enough to bamboozle those who are susceptible to such things. Sun Tzu in particular is a rich mine of sage-sounding aphorisms, and I have indulged in quoting him at times. But it is no get-wise-quick scheme; it’s like a cargo-cult.**

While I have no direct knowledge of the extent to which these ideas hold sway within the New Zealand Labour party, their present strategy bears considerable resemblance to this sort of magical thinking. I’ll cover two specific points brought to light by Claire Trevett’s recent article on the goings-on in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition.

Attitude of No Attitude

Attitude is the spirit of awaiting an attack. … I dislike the defensive spirit known as “attitude”. Therefore, in my Way, there is something called “Attitude-No Attitude”. (Musashi, The Wind Book)

This is the most obvious manifestation of magical thinking: that an official posture of David Shearer “staying above the fray” will necessarily confer a non-politician or statesmanlike aura upon him. Of course, such an attitude can have this effect, but whether or not it does in a given situation is not such a simple matter. Such a strategy could have worked for Shearer, given the right people and the right circumstances, but the right people and circumstances were not present. So the result has been a Labour-party-sized hole in the NZ opposition narrative for most of the past four months.

This hole is not entirely of Labour’s own creation — Shearer took the leadership just before the holidays, and the Ports of Auckland lockout took place within the blessed month between Christmas and Wellington Anniversary where most reasonable New Zealanders will hear nothing of politics. Engaging too strongly with the lockout issue risked alienating the very people Shearer was asking to give him a chance. But the period of inaction has lasted well beyond the silly season, and although some of the Labour caucus have been beavering away, people have not noticed. They have been waiting for the leader, and the leader has not been leading.

I can see the logic: “when we zig, people complain we should have zagged; when we zag, it turns out we should have zigged. Let’s hold steady, bide our time, and become at one with the Universe. At least that way we can guarantee there will be no blunders, and the wheels are bound to fall off this Tory bus sooner or later.” But attitude-no attitude is not merely a damage-mitigation strategy. It is effortlessness, not lassitude. It is creating opportunities to strike, not awaiting them. The opportunities have presented themselves — industrial relations, charter schools, Treasury figures, paid parental leave and the veto, others — and the only time Labour has gotten any traction is with regard to ACC (not of their making), and only then by getting sued by a Cabinet minister!

The past four months have been what another lot of military jargon would refer to as “target-rich”, and Labour largely refused to take advantage of it. Either a zig or a zag would have been preferable to an OM.

The Sovereign and the General

Sun Tzu said: In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign, collects his army and concentrates his forces … There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must be not attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed. (Sun Tzu, Variation in Tactics)

The “above the fray” strategy noted in Trevett’s article suggests an attempt by Nash and Pagani to position David Shearer as a “Sovereign” — someone who issues orders that are interpreted and then executed by his “generals”, in cabinet and the staff (led by Nash and Pagani.***) Conversely, the strategy said to have been argued by Fran Mold seems to be to position Shearer more as a general, leading from the front.

Both can work, and both do work in the present NZ parliamentary context. But again, the problem with this framing is that it is simplistic — the leader of a Labour movement, as Shearer referred to the party upon attaining the leadership, cannot be above and aloof from the movement, he must be down in it; but he must not lose sight of the bigger picture. It is a near-impossible job and he must own it. He must determine the balance between the various roles that best suits his own strengths, and those of his cabinet and advisors. He cannot do all of it, but how it is distributed must be congruent.

This last — congruence — is crucial. Its absence is what makes a strategy cargo-cultish. To be strategically successful, whatever David Shearer does must be authentic to David Shearer and to the political narrative that he has cultivated; it must not be some get-popular-quick scheme thought up by clever bastards in expensive suits, it has to be his. That it has required such effort to maintain Shearer’s studied aloofness is a strong indication that it is not an authentic strategy, but a pose struck for dramatic effect, and therefore worthless. Bouncing from cloud to cloud, as good as the strategy of aping Key might have seemed on paper, has not rung true because David Shearer is not Teflon John.

One of the most important tasks of leadership — and Sun Tzu goes on and on about this as well, but I’ll spare you — is to surround oneself with good people, and people suited to their tasks. It is also crucial that a leader has the strength of will to maintain his own strategic direction, and this is doubly true of Shearer, who was elected leader on the claim that he was beholden to no-one. His performance at these tasks has been very poor. It may be that he was drawing from a shallow pool of talent, it may be that he was continuing the network of patronage, it may simply be that he thought John Pagani was the best guy for the job — but his team failed to match Shearer’s strategy of action to the narrative he has built around his leadership, and ultimately that’s his responsibility.

So what now? It’s beyond me. And so as not to provide further opportunities to take an inauthentic path, I’ll refrain from giving any sort of detailed advice, beyond “find your own damned way, choose good people, and avoid magical thinking”. I continue to note the irony that folks who, for years, have pooh-poohed the need for polish and presentation in politics now insist that Shearer’s inability to talk good is what’s holding him back, and even greater irony that staunch supporters of Phil Goff are now abandoning Shearer for having failed to accomplish in four months what Goff failed to accomplish in three years. I also can’t get too cut up about his alienating the old leftist revolutionary guard.

David Shearer now has an opportunity to refresh some of his underperforming staff, and that at least shows an awareness that Goff’s office did not show until much later in his term. It may yet be that he has to go; it may be that he really has no authentic vision, style or strategy, and even if he has them, if he can’t articulate them then it’s all moot. Things are not good, but there’s still plenty of time to roll him if that’s what’s needed. Patience, though not lassitude, remains a virtue.

L

* Machiavelli’s The Prince and Clausewitz’s On War are also popular, and justifiably so, though they lack that easy Orientalism of the former two.
** I have seen it persuasively argued that this sort of thing had a central part to play in both the boom and the bust of Wall Street in the 1980s.
*** While it is tempting to suggest that this was part of a Tuckeresque scheme to concentrate power with the senior staff, I think the truth is more depressingly mundane.

Team Shearer

datePosted on 22:19, November 30th, 2011 by Lew

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.

L

* 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.

Teapot Tapes poll: political moral suasion

datePosted on 23:38, November 18th, 2011 by Lew

I recently tore into Chris Trotter’s argument that polls are deployed to promote a “spiral of silence”, to demoralise those holding non-majority views, and to deter them from political speech and action. I stand by that post, and I still don’t think the argument holds in the general case, but this morning I think we saw an example where polling data was used in just such a way.

National campaign chair Steven Joyce appeared on Morning Report defending the party’s handling of the “teapot tapes” strategy. Joyce came to his Morning Report interview armed with overnight polling data that he says shows 81% of people are sick of the coverage of the teapot tapes, only 13% think the issue is a big deal, and that some in the media ought to take a long, hard look at themselves. Russell Brown covers the topic in more detail; this post began as a comment there).

Leaving aside questions about the veracity of these figures (they could be utterly fabricated and we’d be none the wiser; Bomber reckons they’re bollocks), this actually is a case of a politician deploying polling data to send a message, not only to the media, but to the public: If you care about this you’re out of touch, disconnected, in the minority, obsessed with trivia, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. While I disagree with his assessment, what’s more interesting is how he framed that assessment: as a normative argument about what election campaigns ought to be about, and what “real New Zealanders” care about; echoing John Key’s “issues that really matter” rhetoric, which is precisely what all the National supporters I’m in touch with have been saying: nothing to see here, it’s a sideshow, can we get back to the substance, and all that.

Which is pretty ironic given that the Nats have done extremely well for most of the preceding five years by staying the hell away from policy arguments wherever possible. It’s a pretty remarkable position from a National party whose strategic success has been largely founded on a ruthless commitment to campaign realism, expressed by avoiding “noble” pursuits such as the robust policy focus and appearances in the hard-news media in favour of what is effective — personality and brand-focused campaigns, point-scoring, agenda domination, and routine appearances in sympathetic forums, for example. It’s even more remarkable since Joyce himself has been the architect of this strategy since the 2008 campaign.

So I am cynical about National’s sudden love for the “real issues”. They have touched on them before — the election-year launch of the privatisation policy that I wrote about in February is the best recent example — but this has hardly been their preferred route. What seems more likely is the “spiral of silence” imperative — marginalise, shame and heap scorn upon those who genuinely see a substantial public interest in the way the teapot tapes episode has played out, not out of a prurient interest in the contents of those tapes but because — as Danyl notes, it “keys into a huge range of really substantive issues: the Prime Minister’s integrity; media ethics; surveillance”. This deployment of normally-secret polling data — probably collected for this exact purpose using carefully-framed questions — seems like an attempt to bully into silence those who aren’t willing to ignore an unprecedented breakdown in the relationship between the Prime Minister and the media, and a nearly-unprecedented glimpse into the internal workings and political culture of the National party and its leader.

It has had the desired effect on other political parties — Phil Goff and Peter Dunne have sung from the same songsheet today, leaving only Winston Peters to reap the electoral harvest from these events. Given that, it is not unlikely that it would have a similar effect on voters, especially in Epsom. Of course, there may not be an electoral harvest; the polling data might be accurate and it may genuinely be perceived as a “Bowen Triangle” sideshow. I don’t think so, but then, I would say that.

Update: Since writing this, Fairfax has released a poll of their own that suggests the public are over the teapot tapes. Its numbers are considerably more ambivalent than those released by Steven Joyce, however; the strongest result was for the obviously-correct proposition that politicians should be able to discuss controversial topics privately (63%). On this basis Matthew Hooton is now praising the strategy as “genius”. It’s also important to realise that this isn’t a pure popularity contest, but a balance of complex factors — the intensity of sentiment on either side matters. As Danyl remarked in the Public Address thread, “If 4% of National supporters switch their vote over to Winston Peters on the basis of this affair, then that’s a strategic catastrophe for Joyce’s party, no matter what the other 96% do.” There’s no indication that this has happened, of course, but there’s no really definitive indication of the fallout from these events at all. The Herald on Sunday tomorrow will be fascinating.

L

Mr Self Destruct

datePosted on 09:15, November 5th, 2011 by Lew

Labour seems to believe that it’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission. With the missing figures in the Press Debate, they’ve sought forgiveness for failing to perform on the night, with predictable effect, and yesterday on the wireless with Paul Henry, Labour’s finance spokesperson David Cunliffe remarked about Police minister Judith Collins that if she were the last woman on earth “the species would probably become extinct”. That’s a couple of pretty big steps beyond the usual (and also unjustified) fat jokes about Gerry Brownlee and others, and it’s the sort of behaviour we’d expect in Berlusconi’s Italy, from some of the viler denizens of the lunatic fringe, or perhaps from Paul Henry himself — but it is not conduct becoming a former minister and possible Prime Minister-in-waiting.

I anticipate we’ll see a cringing apology today or tomorrow once the media cycle gets hold of it, but it’s too late — the damage is already done. Some lefties will inevitably claim that having a bit of “mongrel” is crucial to win back “Waitakere Man” (more on this later), or will point to examples of comparable outrage on the other side, but again, it doesn’t matter: Labour is dead in the water if it holds itself to the standards of the rabid right, and this reeks of desperation more than it does of strategy. As Pablo wrote recently, negative campaigning isn’t always a losing strategy, but it has to be done right — and this isn’t. [Edit to add: this sort of behaviour also negates a tactical advantage of being able to criticise Key for his media engagements, such as with Tony Veitch.]

As Labour partisans take great delight in reminding me, I have no knowledge of the inside of Labour’s organisation, and all my Kremlinology about its dysfunction is based on near-obsessive observation of what public evidence is on display. With that caveat, let me advance a thesis: Goff is actually coping pretty well with the campaign so far, but Cunliffe is not. After all, Goff’s only major failure has been an inability to produce costings for the fiscal policy — Cunliffe’s portfolio. Goff, as leader, bears ultimate responsibility for not demanding a better performance from his finance spokesperson, but since Goff has enough on his plate as it is, producing those numbers was surely a responsibility delegated to Cunliffe and his people, and they did not do so. Whether we interpret Cunliffe’s outburst about Collins as (charitably) cracking under pressure or (less charitably) the mask of civility slipping, it looks like he’s feeling the heat more than Goff who is performing better than most people expected (and knows it).

Just a final word about Waitakere Man. Yesterday Stuff.co.nz ran a wee video package they called the bloke test in which journalists asked Key and Goff the same set of questions in order to measure their purported blokiness. This has been widely derided (mostly by the same people who think Labour is running good strategy) as an exercise in vapid idiocy, but that’s not so. Just as much as we have a right to demand political and institutional competence from our leaders, we have a right to judge them on their instinctive, bedrock responses; and this was a case where two leaders were asked a series of unpredictable personal questions and expected to answer them off-the-cuff.

While its utility in measuring “blokiness” is highly dubious, this exchange contained a lot of other information about how the leaders respond to pressure, to humour, their attitudes towards social transgression and their place in society and a sense of who they “really” are. In a representative democracy where voters can be expected to have neither the time nor the expertise to become proficient in every policy field that impacts them, they rely on other indicators to determine who is more likely to make appropriate decisions in their stead. I’ll leave the interpretation of who “won” the Waitakere Man test as political rorschach, but suffice it to say that anyone who thinks this sort of thing is irrelevant trivia needs remedial classes in voter behaviour.

L

Winning matters

datePosted on 20:01, November 4th, 2011 by Lew

I’ve been absent for a while, and am still pretty busy but will endeavour to write more often through the election cycle.

This post is just to correct a misunderstanding that persists in some circles about the debate between John Key and Phil Goff, hosted by The Press in Christchurch (highlights here). The conventional wisdom, with which I agree, is that Goff performed very strongly through the first half (re Christchurch), and into the second half (on more general topics) up until the point at which Key challenged him on Labour’s costing, at which point he lost it because he simply couldn’t rebut the allegation that there was a $14 billion deficit hole in Labour’s policy platform. Labourites, however, have complained that this was unfair, that Key’s numbers were made up, that Goff couldn’t produce figures that hadn’t been properly worked out, or that nobody watches the debates anyhow so it doesn’t matter. These claims might be right; some of them certainly are. But it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference: the task was to win the debate, and Goff did not win the debate.

This is the point, though: it doesn’t matter if a leader’s debate is watched by only 100 people if as one of those people is the political editor of a major news outlet.

Winning a leader’s debate in itself doesn’t change people’s minds. Few people watch them, and most who do have already made up their minds and will interpret even the most epic fails as wins (go back and read the Daily Kos response to the ‘Dean Scream’; or for a more immediate example, see John Pagani). There’s a bunch of research been done on this, and the headline finding is that debates have a significant influence only on the politically naïve. For the most part, leader’s debates are about arousing the true believers and persuading the pundits, who will then report the outcome of the debate, which in turn provides signals to the voters about who has advantage, momentum, mad chops, political competence, and so on — including but not limited to who has the better policies. By failing to show John Key (and the rest of the nation) the money, Goff lost the debate, which puts him on the losing side in terms of all those factors — compounding an existing and well-documented leadership deficit. It doesn’t matter if he’s right — if he can’t demonstrate he’s right we’re entitled to believe he’s not. It’s not as if Key shut him down — he was afforded very generous opportunities to make his case, and he failed (or refused) to do so.

What has happened with the “$14 billion” over the past 48 hours is the system working as intended, filtering our presumptive leaders for basic political and institutional competence. Because we are entitled to demand basic political and institutional competence from our leaders. Not only that, we should demand it; and the fact that people — Labour activists in particular — have not demanded it this past 3 years is part of why we’re looking at another three years of John Key as PM.

John (and Jordan Carter, the MPs, Phil himself) and others who have picked apart Key’s back-of-the-envelope figures, insisted that it was more responsible to check and recheck the PREFU numbers before saying anything miss the point of a debate — it’s about winning under the hot lights of the public glare, not about being technically correct in the cool light of the following Friday. You have to be right enough that you don’t look as if you won on false pretences, but the task is to win, and to maintain the momentum of the campaign, the aura of leadership.

Goff failed. Barring some massive set of exigencies, that’s probably the election.

L

Suspecting the Spies.

datePosted on 14:41, August 6th, 2011 by Pablo

Claims by Phil Goff that he was not briefed by Warren Tucker on the SIS Israeli backpacker investigation are remarkable because of what they imply. Not only is he suggesting that Tucker violated his statutory mandate to keep him, as Leader of the Opposition, fully informed of ongoing intelligence matters. His comments also raise the possibility that the SIS filters the information it provides to the Opposition Leader in a way that differs from that given to the government (and in this case provided incomplete information or none at all on a matter of importance). If true, the latter suggests that the SIS serves the government of the day rather than the national security interest at large, and that it “spins” the way it reports on intelligence matters in ways that cater to the government’s political necessities rather than based on objective assessments of the security and threat environment at any given moment. This is a violation of democratic principle.

The current National government would not be the first one to prefer that the SIS “spin” its reporting according to political necessity rather than fact. After all, the SIS did exactly that for the Fifth Labour government in the Zaoui case. Thus Goff’s indignation is a bit rich, although he may have a valid concern that the extent of spin and filtration in his briefs has exceeded the previous norm (recall that Don Brash, then Opposition Leader, said on radio that the case against Zaoui was thin, which suggests that he was getting honest briefings from the SIS at that time).

This is very troubling. If the SIS is, in fact, playing loose with its statutory obligations vis a vis intelligence briefings for the Opposition leader, it raises serious issues about its organisational accountability and transparency when answering to the elected officials (and public) to which it is responsible and to whom it ostensibly serves. This might not be unexpected in an authoritarian regime but it is absolutely anathema to democratic governance.

It is hard to see what political gain Phil Goff would achieve by attacking the credibility of a senior public servant such as Warren Tucker. Being an experienced politician, Goff would know that such a move would generate a backlash against him, including from quarters normally sympathetic to his views. Moreover, Goff has a considerable experience with intelligence flows given his previous roles as Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a fairly extensive professional history with Tucker himself. So, why did Goff do this? With no electoral advantage to be gained and plenty of downside to consider, why did he feel the need to turn what should have been the subject of a quiet discussion into a public fracas?

I suspect–without any inside knowledge–that his version of events is closer to the truth than that provided by Tucker. I suspect that when Tucker briefed Goff on March 14 as part of their regular monthly briefings he calculated it best not to bring up the Israeli case. The reasons were that Tucker would have noted that Goff was mired in the Darren Hughes affair and given Labour’s reaction to the previous Israeli spy scandal involving passport fraud in 2004, he might use the suspicion of more Israeli skullduggery as a diversion from the Hughes matter (and his handling of it). Since the SIS investigation of the Israelis was concluded by March 6, there was nothing to report other than that suspicions had been raised by the hasty departure of the three surviving Israeli tourists and that these suspicions were unfounded (I shall leave aside for the moment a number of questions that could indicate that there is more to the story than a mistaken suspicion).

Thus, it is possible that Mr. Tucker felt it wise, given National’s commitment to strengthen bilateral ties with Israel (including security ties), to gloss over or omit mention of the investigation during the March 14 meeting. That is not a cardinal sin and does not suggest impropriety so long as Mr. Goff was provided a full intelligence brief in writing. Goff claims that he was not provided such documentation. The SIS admits that there is no transcript of record of the meeting other than Tucker’s briefing notes (that is, the notes prepared before the meeting), something that not only violates standard bureaucratic procedure but also quite possibly the Public Records Act (I find it quite astonishing that the intelligence briefs are done on a one-on-one basis between the Director of Intelligence and the Opposition Leader without a third party transcriber of record, be it a secretary or someone nominated for that role by both parties). I could be wrong of course, but there are enough discrepancies in the SIS version of events to open room for such speculation.

The story gets weirder because the SIS maintains that Mr. Goff was also briefed on the matter on April 6, and then again on July 25 after the story about the Israelis broke in the press. Why the SIS would brief Mr. Goff on the matter on July 25 when it claims it had already briefed him twice is hard to understand unless Goff demanded a “please explain” meeting with Tucker after the revelations. Also hard to understand is why the SIS, under Tucker’s signature, would rapidly declassify its records of the March and April briefings as well as the summary of the investigation in order to provide them to a notorious right wing blogger who is, in fact, criminally convicted of breaching judicial orders regarding matters of privacy (in other words, the big fella is not known for his discretion or diplomacy when it comes to dealing with secrets). Not only is the rapidity with which the Official Information Act request from the blogger was answered quite astounding (5 working days from the request to the answer from Mr. Tucker, with the documents in question declassified the same day as the blogger’s OIA request), but it now seems that other outlets were denied or delayed in having their OIAs on the same matter answered, and that the SIS selectively requested that OIAs be sent to it on the subject couched in very specific language.

If we recall that the leak to the press of the Israeli investigation came from within or close to the SIS itself, and we add to it the normal reticence of spies to engage in public arguments with politicians about their business, and then factor in the selective provision of OIA data to sympathetic outlets, all on top of Mr. Goff’s claims, then we cannot but begin to suspect that the SIS is heavily politicised in what it does, does not operate as a neutral and apolitical source of intelligence flows, and in fact is behaving in ways that are inimical to democratic oversight and control over the national security apparatus. If true, the politicisation of the SIS (or at least its leadership) is a sign of institutional atrophy as well as bias, and worse yet, is a stain on the professionalism and integrity of those who work in the clandestine services. This is kiss of death type of stuff because foreign governments and New Zealand’s intelligence partners will have noted the deeper implications of the row between Goff and Tucker, something that will influence the way in which they approach matters of intelligence sharing with the New Zealand government.

There is much more to the story but let’s just say that this controversy once again raises serious issues about the SIS role, its integrity, and its ability to serve the public in a neutral and objective fashion without political influence or bias. Whatever Mr. Goff’s motivations, his outcry has raised fundamental questions that will not easily be swept away or silenced, and have the potential to drag Prime Minister Key into the fray (because Mr. Key is Minister for Intelligence and Security and thus Mr. Tucker’s nominal “boss,” and if it turns out the SIS has massaged its briefs or played with its documentation after the fact, then Mr. Tucker’s position becomes untenable–and perhaps criminally liable).

I tried to cover some of these points in an interview on TVNZ’s “Breakfast” show, which if nothing else shows that amid the celebrity sightings, gossip-mongering and general inanity of morning television there is still some room for the occasional serious discussion: http://tvnz.co.nz/breakfast-news/paul-buchanan-warns-sis-stoush-5-59-video-4339934/video

Capital punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L

Like a fox?

datePosted on 21:02, March 29th, 2011 by Lew

Lynn at The Standard has a nothing to see here sort of post about how the Darren Hughes scandal isn’t important. True to form, he misses the fact that that the ‘Labour footsoldiers’ for whom he claims the scandal is an irrelevant distraction are the least-important players in this particular game. What matters is the public, and in that regard the views of the media and the ‘beltway creatures’ matter plenty. So while he might be right that it’s a beat-up and there’s nothing in it, that doesn’t really matter — if Labour treats this as a matter of ‘business as usual’ the results will be deservedly catastrophic.

But one thing which struck me while watching the news coverage of the Dunedin stand-ups before and after the front bench meeting today: he looks happy and confident and genuinely at ease; even effusive. As some wag on twitter said: “Phil, leave some kool-aid for the rest of the caucus!” Looks like he did, because the front bench response of solidarity also looks like it’s for real. If you watch it with the sound off, it’s the very model of a party holding a unified front.

The trouble is that what Goff is saying — that his leadership is stronger now than it was before the Hughes scandal broke — is totally barking mad. It simply doesn’t make any actual logical sense that it would be, that it could be. My instinct is that the fact the caucus and the advisers are letting him bark in this way indicates an utter dereliction of duty on the part of the advisers, and a complete lack of political nerve and sense on the part of the caucus. But, as I argued the other day, as bad as Labour is, I don’t think they’re that far gone. So maybe there’s an explanation other than mass political psychosis: maybe he’s banking on this strategy being just barking mad enough to work. This response, for all its other failings, does hint at the Machiavellian characteristic of virtù which I/S (I believe correctly) diagnosed as lacking in Phil Goff’s leadership. It is nothing if not audacious. It is certainly not a ‘business as usual’ response.

So maybe he’s hoping to catch the government on the hop by simply pretending his situation isn’t as dire as it is and hoping that the pretence is infectious. Perhaps it’s actually not pretence; perhaps he really does have that support. Perhaps he’s relying on people ignoring the waffly words and inept deeds and simply taking their cues from the appearance of functionality which Labour is trying to present.

This might not be as far-fetched as it sounds: Lynn does make a good point that people don’t pay close attention to the details; and it’s an old trick to watch political TV appearances with the sound off to get a feel for how a naïve viewer might perceive it and to look more closely at the underlying messages about the political actors and organisations which appear in them.* This sort of presentation of functionality is also a pretty good indicator of eventual success: Drew Westen documents cases where random voters could predict with reasonable accuracy the outcomes of political contests by watching brief segments of silent footage and simply observing the political actors’ nonverbal cues.**

So are they crazy like a fox? Yeah, nah, I don’t really believe it either. The hell I know. Good luck to Phil, and all of them, because they’re going to need it.

So, setting aside the conventional wisdom that Labour is just marching into an electoral abyss, what are your theories as to what they’re up to at present? Wackier the better.

L

* There’s a bit of this sort of analysis done on US political events, such as Sarah Palin’s blood libel speech — see here for example. Though not really the same thing, it’s also worth you googling “breath libel”. Scary.
** I’ve lent my copy of The Political Brain to someone, so I can’t substantiate this at the moment, sorry.

Off the hook

datePosted on 19:29, March 27th, 2011 by Lew

On Red Alert, Clare Curran has a hapless pro-forma whinge about the standard of media coverage in New Zealand vis-a-vis in the UK, where a quarter million people are presently engaging in running battles with police; compared with here, where the media are obsessed with Darren Hughes.

Excuse me if I sound like a broken record, but the fundamental issue here isn’t exactly uncharted territory, and the fact that Clare has a lower opinion of the media than I do should make it easier to accept my advice, which is this: If you want the media to talk about something, Clare, give them a reason to talk about it. Make a stink, cause a scene, do something which makes not talking about it impossible. As a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin says: write a book, or do something worth writing a book about.

If you don’t give the media a compelling reason to care, don’t be surprised if they don’t. If you don’t provide them with something powerful to cover, they’ll go with scandal and innuendo every time. In the fable of the scorpion and the frog, the scorpion stings the frog. Why? To do so is in its nature. Frogs, while unable to prevent scorpions from stinging, would at least be wise to deny them the opportunity.

With that in mind, some of the following in this case might also have helped:

  • Have frontbench MPs not do stupid stuff which appeals to the public (not the media) sense of scandalous voyeurism;
  • Have your party leader do more than the absolute minimum possible in response to said scandal;
  • In doing more than the absolute minimum, have the party leader respond in just one move rather than in several successive ineffectual steps which maximise the coverage across several news cycles, including a weekend leading into a Parliamentary recess when political news is going to be thin on the ground anyway;
  • Ensure the party president is sufficiently apprised of said scandal that he finds out about it by some means other than reading the papers;
  • Even in the incredibly unlikely event that you can’t do the preceding, at least have your party leader and president sit down together for long enough to agree on a unified position, so as not to give credence to rumours of a leadership challenge.

It’s not that Labour didn’t give the media something to cover, so the media covered the Darren Hughes scandal by default: it’s that Labour gave the media the Darren Hughes scandal to cover, covered in juicy scandal juice, and then didn’t give them anything more compelling to cover instead. (As if there is something more compelling than a sexual investigation into a male frontbench MP’s alleged dalliance with a teenaged male youth MP in the house of the deputy leader after a Parliamentary function, which was covered up for two weeks by the party leader.)

Let me be crystal clear: the issue here is not about right and wrong, or about justice. Perhaps it should be, but electoral politics is not about what should be; it’s about what is. If you choose to privilege ‘justice’ over ‘politics’, as Phil Goff claimed on Q+A this morning, there’s a political cost to doing so; a political cost which, while it might be regrettable, isn’t something to whinge about. After all: if you made the choice you’re presumably better off than if you’d chosen differently. To behave as if it were otherwise, and to blame the media for their role in exacting that price is to blame the scorpion for having a sting in its tail.

Anyone to whom this dynamic isn’t clear has no business running strategy for a Sunday book club, much less a political party which aspires to government. As long as Labour continue to fail at this, one of the most basic tasks of politics, the phone will remain off the hook.

L

Hard rain’s a-gonna fall

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L

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