Posts Tagged ‘Referenda’

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.

Polysemic text, context and objective meaning

datePosted on 14:16, July 11th, 2009 by Lew

If a door is closed, karate chop it open.

If a door is closed, karate chop it open.

The basic critique I and others have made about the s59 referendum question is that it only makes sense if you accept the implicit assertions with which it is loaded. Linguistic or semiotic texts don’t have wholly objective meanings – their meaning is partially subjective to the interpreter, and meaning approaches objectivity only to the extent to which people can (or will) agree on the interpretation of a text. What we call ‘objective’ meaning in a text really describes a particularly strong agreement on interpretation within a notional audience, and frequently what we call an absence of understanding or comprehension of a text really just describes an absence of agreement on the interpretation between one part of a notional audience and another. It’s easy to overstate this: usually within a given audience there is a reasonable degree of agreement on interpretation, and this is particularly true with regard to ordinary or mundane language or imagery. Some texts are more complex than others, and some are more controversial and will tend to divide the agreement of an audience more than others, but this is not a pure subjectivist or hyper-relativist argument that there is no useful meaning in anything or that definitions or the understanding of common referents are irrelevant or somehow unattainable. Just to say that meaning is not strictly encoded in a text but is as much a function of interpretation. Texts with more than one reasonable reading for a given notional audience (such that ordinary people within an audience group can reasonably differ on interpretation) are called ‘polysemic’, which is just a fancy technical way to say they have multiple meanings.

Broadly speaking the task of a propaganda campaign, or of political speech in general, is to pose a monosemic question or scenario – one which a reasonable person from within the target audience group can only read or answer in one way. This often relies on loading one’s text with as much implicit context as possible so as to avoid the possibility of part (or all) of your audience misreading it; shipping with instructions, as it were. In a strategic sense, it is not the text itself which is the payload – the frame and its implied norms enable the propagandist to construct (manufacture) the audience’s consent for their preferred reading of the wider text.

Returning to the s59 referendum question, it is a fair and credible attempt at freighting a question with an implicit value judgement which renders the answer obvious if the question is read naïvely. But it goes too far; reasonable people don’t need to try very hard to see the payload, which is the implication that (a) a smack can be part of good parental correction and (b) such a smack is a criminal offence. In a successful propaganda campaign of this nature, the textual agenda is more obvious and the contextual agenda less so, and the referendum’s supporters have been working very hard to try to shut down contrary readings of their campaign in order to de-emphasise the frame and context, and emphasise the naïve text. They’ve failed in this, but it is instructive nevertheless, and that isn’t to say they haven’t achieved any of their objectives. The problem is that the referendum question and campaign is essentially preaching to the choir – it makes sense to a conservative segment of the population who care a lot about this issue and are riled up by the constraint on their “freedom” to smack, and it speaks to them because they already accept its premises. But it isn’t much use as a polemic device because, for those who don’t accept its premises, it just looks like a stupid question. This is the problem with developing political strategy in an echo-chamber – just because you believe your own hype doesn’t mean everyone does. To pervert Schneier’s Law: anyone can design a political campaign so clever that he or she can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t agree with it. This feeds back into my ongoing critique of the state of Labour politics: toward the end they believed their own hype, in much the same way as the AAS lobby believes theirs.

Campaigns which employ symbolic or propaganda methods, whether for beneficial purposes or not, are ultimately about social control. A society which responds uniformly and predictably is, all else equal, easier to control than a diverse society, so a great deal of effort is put into the crafting of messages, delivery systems, textual and contextual input to a society which will generate predictable output. Public campaigns, to be successful, require their audience to share strong agreement about interpretation and common understanding of context for their payload to be effective. Robbed of context and freighted assumptions, even something as apparently intuitive, important and uncontroversial as a FEMA public readiness campaign can be highly puzzling and confusing if read naïvely.

Edit: And sometimes, when the context seems obvious, it’s not:

Get the context at BAGnewsNotes or YouTube. If you read the video right, he’s being a gent, not a cad.


Clearly not

datePosted on 16:47, July 8th, 2009 by Lew

Make your own!

(Thanks to Naly D).


Thank you, Lyndon Hood

datePosted on 11:38, July 3rd, 2009 by Lew

Your s59 referendum decision-making flow-chart is a thing of beauty.


The problem with stupid questions

datePosted on 22:02, June 23rd, 2009 by Lew

… is that they tend to beget stupid answers. Or at least unexpected answers.

Via James at Editing Teh Herald, it seems the UK’s Daily Mail (whose egregious abuses of truth and decency are legend) has gotten bit by this simple truth, with an online poll receiving a response 96% in the affirmative to the question “Should the NHS allow gipsies to jump the queue?” The Daily Mail, bless ’em, wouldn’t stand for this and it now shows 100% in the negative.

Now, I’m not saying that the s59 poll is that insultingly loaded, and obviously we can’t use twitter to vote in referenda, but groups like The Yes Vote are counting on people being similarly insulted by the dishonest and misleading question that they’ll consider how the framers clearly want people to vote and vote the reverse in order to demonstrate that they don’t appreciate being treated like democratic cattle to be herded in the direction the lobby wants.

So here’s another meaningless poll: have the AAS lobby over-egged their question?


Putting the referendum in context

datePosted on 13:15, June 21st, 2009 by Anita
Firstly, a couple of facts:
  • This is Sheryl Savill’s petition not Larry Baldock’s. Savill, a staff member at Focus on the Family‘s New Zealand organisation put this forward before Baldock jumped on the referendum bandwagon.
  • MPs from a other parties, including National (Bob Simcock) and NZ First (Brian Donnelly and Barbara Stewart), had placed bills to either repeal or amend s59 in the ballot in the past, they were just less lucky than Sue Bradford.
  • The bill received support from both sides of the house throughout the debate.
  • The bill was eventually passed 113 to 8 – it was supported by a massive majority of MPs
  • The actual text of the new s59 can be found here – it does not actually ban smacking

Secondly, in case any of you are interested in a much more wordy context I have attached, below the fold, a slightly updated piece I wrote for a different purpose earlier this year. It was written to follow on from a summary of the international context, if anyone’s really keen I can post that too :)

Read the rest of this entry »

S59 referendum: a game theory approach

datePosted on 22:25, June 17th, 2009 by Lew

How* to vote: Yes, [null] or !#gh$u%WfG?

What’s a body to do, who thinks the S59 referendum question is absurd and yet supports the rights of children to be free from violence, even that perpetrated by their well-meaning parents?

Russell Brown asks the question, and elaborates on the options, but doesn’t provide an answer. Essentially, the question is about principle against pragmatism. This approach is pretty elementary (game theory isn’t a speciality) but it does enough to demonstrate my views on the matter. (It looks to me like a weird sort of Stag Hunt with a third quarry thrown in). There are also a few assumptions and assessments as to how the results will play, which I’m happy to argue. I apologise if it all seems a bit bleedin’ obvious.

mehStarting with the worst response, the third quarry or null vote. An argument of principle, advocated by Denis Welch, it holds that people should treat the s59 referendum with utter contempt and dispose of their share of the $9m expense in the circular file. This is possibly best characterised as the Ostrich Strategy, viz. “ignore it and it’ll go away”. Unfortunately, no cause which attracts signatures from the 10% of the electorate required to trigger a CIR will ever just go away on its own. Given that there are a hard core of people who are strongly motivated to vote “no” in this referendum, the adoption of this strategy will send the (incorrect) message that the bulk of the electorate doesn’t care either way, ceding the field to the “no” voters (hereafter “anti-anti-smacking” or “AAS”). We can call this “Lose For Sure”, because no matter what happens, the strategy can’t win.

chadThe main argument of principle, made most forcefully in the PAS thread by Craig Ranapia and Tom Semmens, is that the question is so badly worded that reading meaning into it and voting on the basis of that interpretation accords the question too much respect, and devalues the CIR system which should insist on properly-formed questions. This argument holds that one should respond to a meaningless question with a meaningless answer by invalidating the ballot and submitting it anyway, which I have characterised above as “!#gh$u%WfG”; in other words, leaving the chad hanging or writing something to the effect of “This question is meaningless” on the ballot and returning it. This has some history in previous referenda, and in principle if enough informal ballots were returned, could serve to discredit the question and the questioning lobby group. Which is what we want. We can call this “Win Big”, because if enough people take this approach, the anti-anti-smackers will be roundly shamed in a more thorough manner than simply losing the referendum. On the other hand, if not enough people do this and the votes are split between “yes” and “informal” the AASers will claim victory. We’ll call this “Lose”.

yesThe argument in pragmatic terms is most eloquently put by Judy Callingham: “I’m going to vote “yes” – as I see it if the bastards don’t lose we’ll never hear the end of them”. This illuminates a key aspect of the matter: the AAS lobby doesn’t have to win big, they just have to not lose in order to demonstrate that they represent the “average kiwi”. This means the primary goal of those opposed to the question or what it represents should be to win, regardless of the magnitude of the victory. Put like that it seems obvious, doesn’t it? This position is most strongly put by The Yes Vote, whose banners are currently up all around the progressive NZ blogosphere. Essentially, if enough people interpret the question in the way in which the AAS want people to interpret it and vote “yes” anyway, they will lose, and the outcome will be positive, viz. parents not being allowed to claim correction as a defence for beating their children. We’ll call this “Win”. Those so voting will have favoured the AAS with a formal answer to their ballot, thus granting them some sort of legitimacy, and if insufficient people vote this way such that it boosts turnout and the AAS still win, they will rightly be able to claim that they have a public mandate for their policy of allowing parents to assault children with legal protection. We’ll call this “Lose Big”.

So, how do things stack up? I’ve established five notional outcomes, as follows:

  • Lose For Sure: %No > %Yes > %Informal (low turnout). This would be caused by people who object to the question refusing to vote.
  • Win Big: %Informal > (%Yes or %No) > (%Yes or %No). This would be caused by enough people voting informally to outnumber those who vote any other way, rendering the referendum a public farce. This requires a great deal of work to convince those who would instinctively vote “yes” despite disagreeing with the question, out of native respect for the democratic process or for other reasons.
  • Lose: %No > (%Yes or % Informal) > (%Yes or % Informal). This would be caused by those objecting to the question being split between “yes” and “informal” such that “no” snuck through the gap, allowing the AAS to claim a plurality and thus victory. There would remain some defence in that the cumulative “yes” and “informal” votes might add up to a majority, but I don’t think this would be worth much.
  • Win: %Yes > (%No or %Informal) > (%No or %Informal). This would be caused by enough people voting “yes” to demonstrate that the AAS does not represent the “average Kiwi” as they claim. It seems likely that those who consider the question an affront to the democratic process and are inclined to vote informally or not vote at all would need to be convinced to vote “yes” instead.
  • Lose Big: %No > %Yes > %Informal (high turnout). This would be caused by enough people voting “yes” to demonstrate that those opposed to the AAS were taking them seriously, but were outnumbered by the AAS itself, thereby justifying the claim that they represent the “average kiwi” with the assertion having been properly tested. If some (but not enough) people are convinced that voting “yes” is the right idea, this will be the result. Thus there is danger in an incomplete adoption of the strategy.

So how should one vote? Well, it obviously rests on what other voters will do. Clearly the best outcome in the case of a split requires collusion – members of one group (either the “informal” voters or the “yes” voters) changing their vote. It looks to me like this:

  • Fail to vote: Many people will do this, but it won’t have any positive effect for anyone other than the AAS. P(Lose For Sure) > *
  • Vote informally: Some people will do this, but probably not enough to Win Big, and if the result isn’t Win Big, it’s more likely to be Lose. This rests on your judgement of whether the number of informal voters will be greater than the number of “no” voters. I don’t think they will. Thus in my assessment P(Lose) > P(Win Big) > *
  • Vote yes: If enough people do this, it will result in Win. If nearly enough people do this it will result in Lose Big. I think the natural tendency of voters is to vote according to what they think something means, rather than what it actually means in cold hard terms. In addition, I think voters are generally reluctant to vote informally out of respect for the institutions of democracy. In addition, I think The Yes Vote has been running a fairly good campaign – they’ve had a few mentions in the mainstream media, and their message is clear and forthright. Therefore in my assessment P(Win) > P(Lose Big) > *

So, essentially, my argument based on this is “vote yes, support campaigns to convince others to vote yes, and all those of you who are considering not voting or voting informally in protest – don’t, just vote yes, because the main danger of losing is in splitting the vote. And hope like hell the yes vote doesn’t fall short, because trying and failing will mean a worse loss than just plain old failing.”


* I have omitted the “no” vote. People who are going to vote thus have no need to consider the questions I raise in this post.

Smacked down

datePosted on 08:58, June 17th, 2009 by Lew

Sean Plunket delivered a stinging, if metaphorical, spank to Larry Baldock today on Morning Report (audio). Plunket challenged Baldock to demonstrate one case (just one) in which a parent was convicted of a criminal offence for smacking a child. He can’t, because there hasn’t been one. After several minutes of going around in circles arguing symbolic, rather than substantive matters and making excuses, he settles on the case of Jimmy Mason, which is explicitly not a s59 test case, since he denied striking his son at all.

What we have here is an apt and obvious demonstration that Larry Baldock doesn’t actually understand what the question means – and neither does John Boscawen. That, and the pro-smacking lobby is trying to use the referendum for symbolic purposes. They’re arguing that the question doesn’t mean what its words say it means – it means what its proponents say it means. If this was taken on by government it would be a subversion of the purpose of a CIR, which is to give the electorate a chance to answer a specific question which has clear and obvious policy implications – not to give people a chance to tick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and then have the meaning of that response spun into whatever suits the referendum framers’ agenda. Because there is no possibility of gaining an understanding of what the electorate wants with this question there is no legitimate issue of representation, despite what anti-anti-smackers such as Dave think. John Key has seen this, and has wisely refused to allow his government to be hijacked by populist propagandists with an incomplete grasp of either the issues or the process; that is, people who figure that belief and ideology are all that matter.

Larry Baldock also reveals his larger purpose here, which is to establish himself and the Kiwi Party as NZ’s next populist vehicle, exploiting the vacuum left by Winston Peters’ absence. He started by talking about how both Phil Goff and John Key are “part of the problem” for supposedly ignoring the electorate, and finished this interview, in which he made no substantive points whatsoever in support of his case, with a petulant “the next-best referendum will be the elections in 2011”, a somewhat weak variation on “the eternal court of history will absolve me” which calls on people who believe that both Labour and National are the problem to vote for him.

Well, Larry, we’ll see. You’re no Winston. Perhaps you can sign Michael Laws up; you could use his political competence.


Just do it! The Auckland referendum

datePosted on 18:50, April 27th, 2009 by Anita

If a political party, or combination of political parties, truly wanted a referendum they could just run one. It wouldn’t be governed by any legislation, but who cares? It would be just as powerful as a CIR (which relies on expressing public opinion and is not binding).

Political parties have access to electoral rolls, parliamentary service funding for material and postage, and free mail for people returning material to parliamentary addresses.

The parties would probably want  to find some eminent people for a panel to oversee the decision on the question and the rules under which the referendum will be run. They’d also benefit from maximum transparency: invite in all the media who want to be there, ensure all meetings are open, all agendas and minutes are public, and so on.

Figuring out the question’s gonna be tough; that’s the key to a referendum and worth putting time and effort into consultation and getting it right.

But, seriously, just do it!

It doesn’t matter that National and Act don’t want one, run it anyway!

It doesn’t matter that National and Act will say it’s not binding, would they ignore the outcome?

Just do it!

Everyone loves a referendum

datePosted on 01:18, April 25th, 2009 by Lew

… but only when they serve our political purposes.

That’s the message you can draw from the two cases in which referenda have been recently proposed; for s59 and for the future of Auckland. The clearest distinction is between ACT and Labour, with Labour calling for a referendum on the Auckland issue in much the same way that ACT pushed for a referendum on s59; and Rodney Hide declining on a pretext, as Helen Clark was widely criticised for doing.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to equivocate on the two issues. I think the Auckland supercity referendum has merit (though phrasing the question will be tricky) and I think the s59 referendum is a jack-up for pure PR purposes – the point I’m making is about parties’ willingness to resort to plebiscite when it suits them, but not when it doesn’t.