Posts Tagged ‘Russel Norman’

On Billboards

datePosted on 06:48, November 16th, 2011 by Lew

To state the bleeding obvious: the coordinated actions of a group of Green activists to deface National party billboards is bad form. This is not so much because of the defacement itself (that’s bad enough), but because of the scale and extent of the organisation by members and representatives of another political party, and one which claims to be a good electoral citizen.

The method of defacement — stickers with snarky slogans, mimicking National party campaign material but conveying opposing messages — was clever, well-executed, and the slogans might arguably be true, but that doesn’t excuse the offence against our democratic loix de la guerre, such as they are. That having been said, I would not be so concerned if it had been undertaken on a smaller scale, had been less organised and more “organic”, and particularly if it had not been coordinated and undertaken by members of a rival parliamentary organisation that stands to gain a zero-sum advantage from National’s embarrassment. A certain amount of public-sphere critique and satire is to be expected within a democracy, and at times that means having to tolerate a little vandalism. But these actions crossed well beyond what most people would consider reasonable.

Fortunately for National, and unfortunately for the Greens, this sort of transgression brings its own punishment, and the episode should be a clear lesson to all political parties that dirty tricks of this nature aren’t on (or, more cynically, if you’re going to go there, you need to outsource it). This goes double for the Greens, whose political brand of good-faith, play-the-ball-not-the-man politics would have been ruined if this were seen to be an integral part of the Green strategy. It seems not to have been seen that way, and I think this is largely due to the exemplary response by Russel Norman (and to the best of my knowledge, other senior Greens), coming clean as early as possible (only a few hours after co-leader Metiria Turei urged the Prime Minister to do likewise regarding the “teapot tapes”), and offering the time of Green party volunteers to repair the harm done. This shows excellent faith and genuine respect for the democratic process, and in an ideal world such a response would also be its own reward — though in reality a public opportunity to demonstrate such a commitment may not be worth as much as a dose of (in this case, justified) outrage. It is a black mark against the Greens’ institutional competence that such a stunt could be arranged so close to the leadership, but this shouldn’t be overstated. In general they are pretty good, and given the size, diversity and ideological fervour of their activist community, that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often is itself quite remarkable.

An unrelated observation regarding National party billboards: most days I travel between Kapiti and Wellington, and on the weekend for my sins I drove to Palmerston North and back. Leaving aside the demographic changes between electorates, it puzzles me that the National billboards are erected in such a slapdash manner. If you’re going to have a billboard campaign setting out an ordered list of priorities, why on earth would you not stage the billboards in order following peak traffic flows so as to establish a coherent, narrative communication platform? Perhaps they have attempted this, but some billboards have been knocked over, obscured or whatever. But I have been able to distinguish no clear patterns, and it seems a missed opportunity.


Frogs, toadies and tadpoles

datePosted on 11:22, September 20th, 2010 by Lew

There’s been a long and turgid discussion about the Greens’ support for the Canterbury Earthquake Response & Recovery Act (CERRA) on Frogblog, with commenters including many of the usuals from around the blogosphere, Russel Norman and Kevin Hague, and someone called BJ Chip (who I assume is a comms flack) running defence for the Green party. (I can’t figure out how to link to individual comments, sorry). Another commenter, Geoff Fischer, makes a persuasive case against the Greens’ newfound pragmatism, both on the Frogblog thread and on his own site. Whilst I don’t entirely agree with Geoff (I’m a pragmatist at heart) I think his critique is a good one, particularly for the Greens (who aren’t). But there are also strong pragmatic grounds to attack the Greens’ decision to support the CERRA; grounds which, if the Greens are serious about their new realpolitik posture, they’d do well to consider.

I’m often disappointed by the Greens’ persistent — even pigheaded — reliance on the ‘principled stand’ in politics. While valuable among a suite of tactics, it’s overused as a one-size-fits-all response which pigeonholes them as idealistic zealots who don’t compromise and can’t be worked with. But although I think its consistent use is a poor strategy in the general case, it gives the Greens a valuable trump card: the ability to say “these are our principles; if you don’t like them, go ahead on your own”. While it all too often results in other parties abandoning the Greens as irrelevant and going ahead on their own, it does build a powerful narrative about the Greens which speaks to characer and reliability and permanence. Principled politics, as Geoff says in other words, has an objectivity about it which is often lost in modern pragmatic discourse where what often passes for ‘true’ is whatever you can argue. When all the other parties in parliament — even the other parties who (however unjustly) appeal to the ‘principled’ brand, such as ACT — are falling over themselves to betray their principles, it’s all the more important that you stick to your own. Put another way: when your political strategy is to be principled, refusing to act on principle is not a pragmatic decision.

Most obviously, taking a uniquely principled stance at the time when the pressure is greatest to cave in hugely strengthens that narrative mentioned above, ensuring the long-term strength of the brand. It’s easy to be principled when nothing is on the line — the measure of a party’s commitment to principle is how it performs when the stakes are highest. That measure has now been taken.

Secondly, principled politics is what the Greens know. It’s their realm of competence. An idealistic stance would have given them the ability to critique whatever misdeeds the government undertakes in the name of this act with a clear and objectively indisputable line (“we voted against it”), whilst the best they can muster at present is the equivocal, inconsistent line which Norman is running in the Frogblog thread (“we objected to it and we don’t like it but we voted for it anyway because we thought it was the right thing to do”). BJChip demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding how public-sphere political communication works with (her or his, I’m not sure) defence: “if they give us such idiotic cr@p [as “you voted for it”] we can give it back chapter and verse”. I replied with the following:

And not a word after “but you voted for it” will be worth a damn out there in the cold, pragmatic world of realpolitik which the Greens have now decided to enter. In that world “but you voted for it, so STFU” is the super-hero version of the “Nine Long Years” gambit which paralysed the Nats from 1999-2004 and has paralysed Labour for the term so far. You can’t beat it; in the battle of the soundbite, it’s political kryptonite because when they say it, they’re right. You voted for it: it’s your law, you swing by the same rope as the rest if and when it all comes apart. And so you should.

As much as they might believe themselves to be big-game players, the Greens have never even made a serious attempt to master the complexities of pragmatic politics, preferring to leave the cut-and-thrust to others. In the realm they have now entered they aren’t so much frogs as tadpoles. Judging by Norman and Hague’s statements and the spirited defence of BJChip (and others who use the pronoun “we” on behalf of the party), it seems they will attempt to defend the decision to support CERRA as they would any principled stance, with a clear restatement of the whys and wherefores behind the decision, omitting any discussion of the political consequences. This is impossible, because it is clear to even the most casual observer that the decision was a pragmatic one based on the politics.

Third and most importantly, at the electoral sharp end a uniquely principled stand positions the party as a ‘safe harbour’ for voters from other parties who are disillusioned by those parties’ too-enthusiastic embrace of pragmatism. This is where I think the Greens got their political calculus most badly wrong. The Greens’ own membership and support base was not going to be unduly turned off by the fact the party refused to support a bill granting dictatorial powers to Gerry “sexy coal” Brownlee; they may have taken some sort of hit, but the risk was not as dire as it is being spun. But a principled stance against this manifest assault on the constitutional framework of the country would have permitted the Greens to position themselves as the last line of defence against Shock Doctrine authoritarianism; a rallying point for liberal values. “Even if you disagree with our policy orientation,” they might say, “at least you know where we stand, and can rely on us to stand against the worst excesses of government impunity.” Coupled with the ideological moderation signalled by the departure of Sue Bradford and Jeanette Fitzsimons, I believe the Greens stood to gain considerable support from disappointed Labour voters, particularly those who wanted the party to act as a functional opposition to the government — and they might have even picked up a little bit from the other parties, as well.

So the decision manifestly fails on grounds of principle, and because the Greens are a self-declared party of principle with neither a strong history nor any particular skills in the exercise of realpolitik, it is doomed to be a failure in practice as well. One silver lining, though: since the Greens stand to gain nothing from it, their support for CERRA doesn’t really indicate that they’ve sold their principles out for power as “Tory toadies”; more that they simply lost their nerve. This stands in contrast to Labour, whose support for the act was obviously based on pragmatic grounds of political calculus, and principles of good governance be damned. This is especially the case for Christchurch-based MPs like Brendon Burns, who is leading the red team’s defence in a particularly distasteful fashion. They are complicit in the power grab. The Greens and their principles are just casualties of it.


The glow of the furniture, piled high for firewood

datePosted on 22:19, February 10th, 2010 by Lew

There’s been much analysis, wisdom, whimsy, and snark about Gerry Brownlee’s plans to mine the conservation estate. But rather than talk about it, I’m going to repair to a rather dubious poll from


Two things are interesting about this poll. First, for an internet poll, the options are uncharacteristically nuanced. This leads to the second interesting thing: these results are deeply incoherent.

I’m going to work from two assumptions (both of which are pretty arguable). First, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that poll respondents are pretty similar to NZ Herald poll respondents and the commenters on “Your Views” and Stuff’s equivalent — putting it very charitably, let’s just suppose that they’re somewhat further economically to the right, less environmentally conscious and with stronger authoritarian tendencies than Gerry Brownlee. Second, I’m going to assume that a poll like this should break roughly along partisan lines, since it’s a government policy opposed by the opposition, part of an overall strategy to mimic Australia, a complex topic of national significance with which people generally have little first-hand experience (the sort of thing they tend to entrust to their representatives), and the poll answers are heavily propagandised using the government and opposition’s own sorts of terms.

The poll result is incoherent because it doesn’t break along (rightward-slanted) partisan lines, although it initially looks like it does. A total of about 56% of respondents approve of mining in principle, and this is roughly what I would expect given this framing, the current government position on the topic, and the demographic characteristics of this type of poll. It’s what the government is banking on in terms of support with this policy: if it drops much lower, they’ll probably back down. But where it gets incoherent is in the other two options. The third option (“too damaging to NZ’s green image”) is about what the Green party is polling, and the fourth (“National Parks are treasures”) is about what the Labour party wishes it was polling. That’s bass-ackwards, because the third option is the Labour party’s actual position on many environmental matters (even Carol Beaumont’s passionately-titled post falls back on NZ Inc. reasoning), while the fourth position is the Green party’s actual deeply-held position of principle. A second source of incoherence is the political framing of the second (most popular) question. By definition, if conservation land is mined it’s not being conserved any more.

Both Labour and the Greens have huge opportunities here, but they need to position themselves to properly take advantage of them. Labour, for its part, needs to tone back the NZ Inc. reasoning which plays into all the assumptions of the second question: that it is a simple trade-off of one type of economic value against another type and come out looking good on the margin. This is classic trickle-up politics, rationale which appeals to the brain instead of the gut. The people who are picking options one and two probably think they’re doing so on solid rational bases: more money, more efficient use of resources, etc. — but the real reasons are probably more to do with ideology (mastery of the environment) and nationalism (catching up with Australia). Labour’s best move here is to appeal to peoples’ identity: New Zealanders think of themselves as people who live in a wild and pristine country, and they like having that country to go and ramble about in (even if they hardly ever do it). The Greens could also adopt such a position, abandoning the wonkery for things which matter to people. Russel Norman tried with his speech in reply yesterday, but I swear, whoever wrote it needs the ‘G’, ‘D’ and ‘P’ keys removed from their keyboard. He needs to take a few hints from the team who got an organic farmer elected to the Senate in Montana on an environmentalist platform by telling him to stop talking about environmentalism and start talking about how much he loved the land. The Greens also need to rethink their deeply confused firearm policy, but that’s a minor thing. In a country with such a strong constituency of outdoorsfolk and wilderness sportspeople it’s an absolute travesty that the MP who represents the hunting lobby is the urbane Peter Dunne, and the only party who genuinely values wild places is represented by earnest city-dwelling vegetarians.

But Labour and the Greens can’t divide this constituency between them; they need to make this appeal positive-sum, and steal back some of those who voted option two. The way to do this is to attack the implicit logic of option two, the idea that you can mine something and still be conserving it, and to remove the idea that this sort of thing is for a government to decide, that it’s somehow too complex or technical for ordinary people to understand. This shouldn’t be hard to do — it’s a plain old political education campaign. But it requires framing and a narrative whereby reasonable people can really only bring themselves to choose the wilderness; causing them to lose faith in the assurances of the government’s “strict environmental criteria”. The narrative needs to be about who we are in New Zealand, and it needs to be one which appeals to socially-conservative rural and suburban folk who would never think of voting for earnest city-dwelling vegetarians even though they share many of the same bedrock values. It needs to be like the lyric in the title: we are burning our furniture, and that’s not what civilised people do. New Zealand is not a nation of environmental degenerates, except when insufferable environmentalist smugness forces them to choose degeneracy as the less-bad identity position.

This is an issue on which the left can win, because it’s already a pretty marginal issue for the government. It cuts against a long-standing bipartisan reverence for National Parks, and it cuts against New Zealand identity as New Zealanders see it. Even on what should be a pretty reactionary online poll, the government only wins by 6%. Turn one in six of those people around and the issue gets put on ice for good.


Sue Bradford: hampered by her own effectiveness

datePosted on 20:33, September 25th, 2009 by Lew

I haven’t had a chance to read much of the matter written about Sue Bradford’s resignation today, so I apologise if I duplicate things other, wiser, faster people have said.

Sue will probably not appreciate the comparison, but she is like Roger Douglas in a way — too effective at driving a radical agenda for an orthodox political establishment to fully tolerate. Even the Greens, who for all their activist trimmings are essentially integral to the orthodox political establishment, and looking likely to become more so under the leadership of Russel Norman and Metiria Turei. As with Rogernomics, the s59 repeal was a powerfully controversial agenda against which popular opinion is strongly united. Unlike Rogernomics, though, it’s not so much because of the policy’s specific impacts (which are minimal) as the rhetoric around it which have proven poisonous. Sue made the bill her own and took a staunch position on it, and with a few exceptions (notably including Helen Clark, who also made the bill her own by adopting it as a government bill [turns out it remained a member’s bill throughout, thanks Graeme]) she was allowed to stand alone on the issue, one person drawing the sort of fire which would ordinarily be directed at a party or coalition of parties. She drew it, took it, and saw the bill through to its conclusion.

And that’s the problem; people don’t like the policy — or rather, they don’t like the idea of the policy — and as far as they’re concerned Sue Bradford is the policy.

Sue Bradford is an extremely effective advocate and a powerful organiser, but she is not the person to lead a party whose central policy plank — climate change and environmental sustainability — is ascending ever more rapidly into political orthodoxy. She is the sort of person any party would want as a #3; someone who works like a demon, is ethically above reproach, has phenomenal networks, whose credentials and commitment can be relied upon, and who has the gumption to see things through to their conclusions. She will go far; we will see and hear as much of her in the coming years as we have of people like Laila Harre and Geoffrey Palmer. But because of her forthrightness and personal investment in the s59 repeal, to elect her to the co-leadership would have struck a critical blow to the Greens’ political credibility and branded them as an activist party without a cause. They have a cause: environmentalism. Other aspects of their policy agenda are important adjuncts to that, but they are just that, adjuncts. The Greens have a great opportunity to make themselves indispensable to future governments who need to be environmentally credible, but they need to focus on doing that.

What of the other parties? Despite her strength as a champion, I don’t think the other parties on the right will be thrilled with Sue’s departure. The Greens’ credibility (and the inability to howl about nanny state lesbians for distraction purposes) is their loss, not their gain. The other parties on the left, likewise, although this change is important in that it enables Labour and the Greens to more clearly delineate themselves from one another. This opens the way to a model of left politics such as I have described; Labour as the core, with the Greens as an independent but allied environmentalist party, with very little crossover. It has potential, although it relies on Labour desisting from the current notion that it can be all things to all people, and the Greens’ former notions of activism as an end, rather than a means.


Mt Albert and Russel Norman

datePosted on 11:04, April 25th, 2009 by Anita

What’s with that? I mean, really, what’s with that?

Norman can’t possibly hope to win Mt Albert, this bears no resemblence to either Ōhariu or Epsom and there is no obvious electoral advantage to Mt Albert voters in voting for Norman. The only possible outcome of Norman upping the Green electorate vote in Mt Albert is converting a historically strong left wing seat to an apparently right wing one, and Lee may have the skill to keep it soft blue from there on out.

So the Greens appear, to my outsider’s eye, to trying something which has a possible down side but no possible up side. At the same time Norman’s dragging the Greens away from their reputation for principled electoral politics into the arena of carpetbagging disingenuous political gamesmanship.

No chance of an overt win, significant possible cost, and treating voters like chess pieces – is Russel Norman the Greens’ Murray McCully?


Framing fires

datePosted on 16:03, February 10th, 2009 by Lew

Parliament is sitting today, and the 2009 session rightly opened with a unanimous motion of support for those affected by the Victoria bushfires. The events themselves have been very thoroughly covered on NZ media and internationally, but what I’m interested in is the way in which our politicians have been speaking about them. So, a quick look at each party’s contribution to the debate of the motion this afternoon.

John Key, National: Emphasised close cultural, economic and military relationship – “like no other”, and history of mutual support in times of need. Strong sporting rivalry means strong cultural ties. Firefighters as heroes who care not for borders and are an example to us all. Top-level links between himself and Rudd. Closed with “kia kaha”. Focused on the magnitude of the events on Australia, though a questionable choice of words with “the enormity of what is happening has burned into our consciousness”. Strongly-worded, statesmanlike, decisive.

Phil Goff, Labour: Spoke for “all New Zealanders”, focusing on impact on families of victims and the “human tragedy” and loss of property. Used family and sport metaphors for the strength of the relationship, like Key. The offer of 100 firefighters “was a good first step”. Generally somewhat procedural, lacked the bite of Key’s speech.

Russel Norman, Green: Very brief. Ticks off main points re support for the motion and assistance, and “respectfully note” the debate on climate change in Australia – but perhaps wisely doesn’t make too much of this.

Rodney Hide, ACT: “All New Zealanders” and “brothers and sisters”, again. Moved quickly to Rudd’s “hell on earth”, then to the possible criminal element behind the fires, hoping that those who committed the “evil” of the arson receive their “just desserts”. He’s angry, first and foremost.

Tariana Turia, māori party: Expressed sympathies in the first place to “the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd” and then to those “families and communities” who have suffered – formally, she’s speaking as ariki ki te ariki, I think. Rather than using family as a metaphor, highlighted the fact that many New Zealanders actually have relatives in Victoria. Fire is “merciless”, families are “scarred’. Said her party would “support the role that this government and this country will play” as if she’s not involved or hasn’t been consulted about it.

Jim Anderton, Progressive: “Brothers and sisters” again, emphasising global and historical magnitude of the fires. NZ being “compelled to share [victims’] grief”. Focused on rebuilding and the resilience and “Aussie dauntlessness”. Firefighters as heroes. Amazingly, he compared the fires to September 11 2001, rationalising it on the basis that the same proportion of population have supposedly been killed. Irony of flooding in Queensland at the same time. Generally a strong speech, but – September 11, WTF! At least he didn’t refer to the supposed arsonists as “terrorists”.

Peter Dunne, United Future: “Kith and kin”. Enormity of the events – “Australia’s worst peacetime tragedy”, which is rhetoric reminiscent of post-9/11. Warns that life will take a long time to return to normal. Talks about media imagery a lot. Encourages people to be “as generous with their resources as they are with their sentiments”.

I see a few true colours there, I think.