Posts Tagged ‘Referenda’

The left’s lose-lose SOE strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L

Election Day

datePosted on 23:59, November 25th, 2011 by Lew

It is an offence to publish any material that might dissuade people from voting, or encourages voting for or against any party or candidate, on election day. So from midnight until after polling closes all comments to KP will be moderated by Anita, Pablo and myself.

But it is not an offence to exhort others to vote, in a nonpartisan fashion. The old cynic’s argument is that if voting made a difference, they would have banned it. In fact, in plenty of places they have banned it for just that reason. Whatever your view of the state of Aotearoan politics, it could be worse. Zimbabwean immigrant Peter Heath this evening called our election-day media ban “quaint”, and it certainly is when compared to the situation there, where (as he says) “officials are too busy with hacked off limbs to worry abt the odd tweet”. Long may it remain so.

We honour democracy by supporting it, and in addition to the other aspects of political participation that ultimately means turning out to vote. But people who feel disengaged from the political process, who feel it doesn’t serve their interests, or who refuse to vote on principled grounds shouldn’t be forced to add noise to an already-fuzzy democratic signal. So vote if you have the slightest inclination to do so, and if you haven’t the slightest, don’t.

But remember, this time around you have four votes: your two electoral votes are for New Zealand’s political body for the coming three years, but your two referendum votes are for its political soul.

L

Double-tracking

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

Danyl Mclauchlan posits a conspiracy theory:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L

MMP in NZ is really safe

datePosted on 10:49, July 13th, 2010 by Lew

As I’ve said before, Peter Shirtcliffe’s campaign to scupper MMP (again) is probably a blessing in disguise for the electoral status quo in New Zealand. If any further evidence were required, the following should suffice for now:

The speech bubbles are blank because Peter is running a caption competition to find a punchline. Demonstrating piercing insight into his relevance to NZ politics, he has chosen the Kiwiblog Right for these words of inspiration. Personally, I think that leaving them blank perfectly captures the character of this campaign: inchoate, futile, tone-deaf irrelevance.

Hopefully he won’t be too disheartened by the far-from-enthusiastic response of Farrar’s captive authoritarians.

L

MMP in NZ is safe

datePosted on 12:53, May 6th, 2010 by Lew

shirtcliffe ad
Evidence:

  • It has been found to work pretty well and all parliamentary parties except ACT support it.
  • The UK election is about to remind people how perverse FPP is.
  • Peter Shirtcliffe is spamming people in order to gain support for his anti-MMP campaign.
  • His google ad campaign looks like this ====>

Seriously. That’s him. A ranting white middle-aged elderly patrician of the sort New Zealand’s governments were almost exclusively composed before the change in electoral system — and on a soap-box, for goodness’ sake. A starker warning of what’s in store should the electoral system change is hard to envisage. Also: it’s visually busy and garish. The blue is neither National-party royal blue, nor ACT-party aqua-blue, nor flag-Navy; it’s nothing. The message is over-long and confused (campaign for an effective referendum? Don’t you mean to campaign against the electoral system? No? Ok then.) And the cartoon …

Thanks, Peter, you’re doing your country a great service.

(Thanks to Lyndon Hood in the comments to Russell’s thread linked above for the pic.)

[This line inserted to fill whitespace].

L

Winner does not take all

datePosted on 10:28, October 21st, 2009 by Lew

Peter Shirtcliffe is furious (audio), and well he might be, because the government’s plans for electoral reform are eminently sensible, subject to wide bipartisan support, and most critically, not at all hasty. This is electoral reform done right: for change, a majority of voters must reject the status quo system outright at two consecutive general elections, with plenty of time for reflection, consultation and campaigning before each.

Shirtcliffe’s proposal for a one-off vote on which electoral system to use at the 2011 election makes only one concession from his holy grail of government decisiveness: he thinks it should be preferential. His scheme aims to deliver that grail to his beloved National party wholesale and for good, by springing fundamental constitutional change upon the NZ electorate with less than two years’ notice and discussion, with no societal safety net, no cooling-off period, no opportunity for reflection. It would turn the time between now and the 2011 general election into an all-out propaganda war for the future of democracy in New Zealand, a war in which the National government and its allies hold all the strategic ground: unprecedented popular support and an opposition at its nadir; confused and rebranding environmental and social justice movements; the recent memory of an unpopular and dysfunctional government which represented all that people thought was wrong with MMP; a political environment in which many people will simply vote for what That Nice Man John Key recommends; and an anti-MMP lobby which is practiced, prepared and very well-resourced. Shirtcliffe’s careful circumspection — refusal to express opinions on such matters as what system should be adopted, and how campaign funding should be managed — and flattery of the plebiscite (“we’ve got an intelligent electorate out there”) seeks to hide this behind a high-handed neutrality of purpose, masking the fact that the process he advocates yields his own cause very great advantages.

Shirtcliffe’s decisiveness imperative insists that the winner must take all, in elections and in constitutional reform as in heavyweight boxing: a few ceremonial minutes in an enclosed space which determine who is the winner and who is the loser, and all that happens in between bouts is meaningless hype. It is not a democratic model, it is not a consultative model, it is not a model which gives adequate consideration to the views and opinions of the electorate at large; far from respecting electors as intelligent and capable actors, it reduces politics for the individual voter to a single, somewhat inconvenient event which happens once every three years, or in the case of something as important as changing the electoral system, once every generation or so if we’re very fortunate. Fortunately for New Zealand, and indeed to the great credit of the National party, he has been denied. The proposed framework should yield a legitimate and durable result, and one which should be supported even by those whose preferred option is not selected.

There’s much which could go awry yet, but this framework is as good as we could hope for. Idiot/Savant’s assertion that “if we want to protect MMP, its not enough simply to vote for no change in 2011 – we also have to chuck out National, just to be on the safe side” seems a little overwrought — National under Key has taken to MMP like a duck to water, learning to play both ends against the middle in a way the Clark government never did. And although there have been some recent cat-herding problems to do with keeping errant ministers in line, and around the rugby world cup, I can’t see a desire to return to the bad old days of one party rule. I do think National will campaign hard for SM as an it’s-the-same-really-only-better option, and this provides Labour and the Greens a good opportunity to differentiate itself — by pushing for MMP-as-it-is-now, or MMP-with-some-changes; although it must be said Labour aren’t behaving much like MMP-aware political actors these days. A larger threat from the National party, I believe, is the possibility of rolling the abolition of Māori seats into the new electoral system, or choosing to support an electoral system in a second referendum which (they may claim) renders the seats obsolete. This will be a strong wedge, and will enable National to frame the debate in terms beneficial to its own interests.

I await the further propagandisation of electoral systems with interest. Meanwhile, I/S’s conclusion is unarguable: “we need to make it clear to both parties: our democracy is non-negotiable.” And I’m still interested in peoples’ responses to the question: what kind of electoral system do we actually want?

L

Bleg: what do people want in an electoral system?

datePosted on 20:10, September 22nd, 2009 by Lew

I wrote most of this before DPF’s post on the threshold, including his link to Chris Bishop’s handy paper on representation and stability went up, so read that first. In fact, you’d also do very well to look over BK Drinkwater’s series comparing electoral systems: noise, wastage, proportionality, and a critique of some critiques of SM, although note that the SM numbers assume a 70-50 electorate-list split as per our MMP system at present. This is good from an apples-apples perspective, even if it’s not an option that’s actually on the table. I also wrote it before my more-recent post on the topic, for which some people have begun offering their preferred electoral modifications. Wonderful!


Much like the subtext to the s59 referendum question was ‘do you like the anti-smacking bill?’, the question above lurks behind the forthcoming debate on MMP, for which the troops are currently massing.

The likeliest contender, in my view, is the retention of MMP as we have it now, with a 5% threshold and a 70-50 split. Other less-likely contenders, again in my view, are as follows:

  • STV, as employed in some local body elections and for the Australian Senate.
  • SM, as apparently favoured by National and employed in the Republic of Korea.

Note that FPP isn’t in this list. I don’t think NZ would go back. Modified MMP also isn’t in the list; not that I think it isn’t a credible contender, just that the way the process is structured (referendum: MMP yes/no; if no, referendum on alternate systems) doesn’t seem likely to permit it. There are lots of other peripheral options, such as open list; run-off or instant run-off; or any number of other possibilities. Feel free to argue your corner.

But what sort of system do people actually want? As I see it, within a centralised democratic structure such as we have, relevant factors include the following:

  • Transparency. Results in transparent electoral systems are clear and obvious; how a particular candidate, party or government was elected is reasonably self-evident. FPP is very transparent. STV is very opaque.
  • Simplicity. Simple systems are easy for people whose political engagement stretches to ticking a box or two every three years to understand. Again; FPP is very simple, STV is not at all.
  • Proportionality. Proportional systems elect candidates from parties according to the party’s share of the vote. FPP is not proportional at all. STV is often claimed to be proportional, but it’s really fauxportional, often producing results which seem proportional but were arrived at by non-proportional means. Open list is (in principle) perfectly proportional. Thresholds in proportional systems and the number of electorates in mixed systems are also relevant to this question.
  • Representativeness. Similar but orthogonal to proportionality, a representative system contains mechanisms to guarantee certain segments of the electorate representation. This is a complex notion; geographical electorates are such a representative measure, ensuring that people from the geographical margins are represented, when a non-geographically-determined system (such as purely proportional open list) might marginalise them. Reserve seats for tangata whenua or other groups are another such form of representativeness.
  • Low wastage/regret. Conventional wisdom is that the prospect of a wasted vote depresses turnout (or changes behaviour) among voters who believe their vote might be wasted, which is a self-perpetuating cycle. This is most evident in FPP, but is also present in proportional systems to an extent, due to the effects of a threshold.
  • Decisiveness. Decisive systems produce strong, stable executive governments with few constraints on their power. FPP, except in the rare case of a hung parliament being elected, is decisive, while proportional systems which elect a number of parties and rely on coalitions are less decisive.
  • Small size. Self-explanatory. Any system can be made large or small, but this frequently has huge impacts on other factors.
  • Durability. Durable systems are not prone to future governments tinkering with, amending or replacing them. FPP was extremely durable. MMP has proven fairly durable. This is a meta-factor, in a sense; it seems like anyone valuing this factor highly should lobby for one of the less-extreme systems; a second-best choice, rather than a perfectly proportional system or a highly decisive system, since ‘pretty good’ is less likely to be overturned.

In principle, the relative importance a person assigns to of each of these factors should point to that person’s ideal electoral system. Could be programmed into a handy poll in the leadup to the referendum; in fact, I bet it already has been, I just haven’t found it.

There are other relevant electoral changes, as well. Here are a few; please add your own:

  • Size of parliament and division of seats. Yeah, I listed it above – what I’m referring to here is the electorate-list split in mixed systems; the North/South island and rural/urban splits, that sort of thing. Also the vexed question: how many MPs overall?
  • Allocation of seats. Historically, the One True Way in NZ was for seats to be allocated along population-geographic lines. Nowadays it’s a mix of population-geographic and party allegiance. But what other means of allocating seats are there? What would happen if seats were allocated according to social class? Income? Level of education? Ethnicity? Religion? The history of democracy contains precedent for all these things in one way or another.
  • Decentralisation. Federation of micro-states? Balance of central and local government power? How does one dismantle centralised democracy using democratic mechanisms?
  • Electoral term and other constitutional institutions. Our three-year term is quite short, and there are few checks on the executive ability of governments – as long as they have a parliamentary majority, there’s little they can’t (and won’t) do. Do we need a second chamber? A longer term? Should one go along with the other?
  • Referenda and non-electoral plebiscites. What should their status be? Other representative mechanisms, such as citizens’ juries?
  • The big one. What difference would becoming a republic make anyhow? A better question: if people knew that NZ would become a republic in the near future, how might their electoral preferences change?

Please, answer the question. What do you actually want in an electoral system, and why? And more than that — what do you want, and what do you think is (even remotely) plausible?

L

Update: Scott Yorke has a few choice words on the topic, as well.

Hide-ing to nothing

datePosted on 09:06, August 24th, 2009 by Lew

Two topics in this post, because I don’t have time to fully develop them.

First, John Key must not ignore the anti-smacking referendum. Although the question was leading, the result was decisive and will embolden people like the Copeland/Baldock/McCoskrie axis of evil to drive the stake deeper into the heart of NZ’s traditional social liberalism. Tinkering with guidelines won’t mollify them, and won’t stop the electorate from listening to them because it doesn’t address the substantive point about the status of a light smack in law. What will do that is the Borrows Amendment. With a view to neutralising further attacks on the discipline legislation, I think the government should adopt and pass the Borrows Amendment with due haste, and put the issue to bed (without its dinner). It’s a mutual-second-best solution, whereas the repeal as passed in 2007 was not and will not endure.

Second, Rodney Hide’s position on the Auckland mana whenua seats is consistent and his behaviour is responsible. The (proposed) mana whenua seats in the Auckland case aren’t the same as the Māori electoral seats – they’re appointed, not elected, and this gives him separate grounds to oppose them. It is not inconsistent that he favours entrenching Māori electoral seats if they exist, but not of implementing any more such seats, and not implementing any seats which aren’t elected. He’s being responsible in clearly signaling his intentions in a fairly measured way. He’s not trying to exercise any more power than he has, but simply saying ‘my resignation will be a cost of making this decision, just so you know’ and requiring John Key to consider whether that cost is worth it. In addition, he’s working with Pita Sharples on the issue rather than taking a reflexively oppositional approach. Finally, this is strengthening his core political brand. It’s smart politics all around because whether he gets his way or not, he comes out of this looking good.

Update: A third thing – eternal guest-poster r0b at The Standard continues to go from strength to strength.

L

Voting for participation

datePosted on 21:20, August 19th, 2009 by Anita

It is rare in NZ that we get a chance to participate simply because people campaigned for that chance, and this referendum is one of those chances. 300,000 people signed a petition and hundreds of people carried those petitions around, arranged for people to sign them, and for them to be returned, counted and presented to Parliament.

I don’t agree with their opinion about smacking, but I agree with their attitude to democracy and participation.

So this is your chance. If you haven’t voted in the referendum yet, do it now! Votes  posted on Thursday (early enough for collection) will be counted.

I voted Yes today

datePosted on 14:16, August 3rd, 2009 by Anita

It is a sunny Wellington spring day; I walked past crocuses and the beginning of daffodils to get my ballot paper, and past trees starting to show their spring growth to post it.

I voted yes because I believe smacking children is wrong.

I voted yes because I want to reaffirm that the Christian right do not speak for me. Many many (many) Christians in New Zealand believe, as I do, that smacking is wrong.

I voted yes because countless people gained the signatures of 300,000 voters to give me the opportunity to say out loud what I believe.

I voted yes because I want to live in a country where children are hugged, held, comforted, and raised to be non-violent adults.

I voted yes because I love.

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