Posts Tagged ‘s59’

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

John Key spanking behind closed doors

datePosted on 18:16, June 19th, 2011 by Anita

A few days ago the DomPost ran on p2 a generally positive story about John Key’s parenting which contained, without comment, the follow paragraph:

“Apparently it’s called planking but I don’t know – if we hadn’t changed the law, it would have rapidly moved to spanking,” [John Key] joked in a speech to the Parents Inc fathers’ breakfast in Wellington yesterday.

It struck me at the time that it was a joke at odds with the image of Key publicly taking credit for brokering the passage of the legislation. Of course it wasn’t a public joke, it was to an an entirely friendly audience pulled together by Parents Inc[1], of men paying $59 a head to hear Key, Gordon Tiejtens, and others and “enjoying the fellowship of other men”. This is reminiscent of Key joking about Tuhoe being cannibals, again Key showing a reactionary conservative face to an appreciative audience behind closed doors.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, perhaps John Key’s public/private image contrast is no more than we can hope for. But shouldn’t the media be looking out for and commenting on this? If he’d told an equivalent joke about beating his wife, having sex with a 15 year old, or snorting cocaine, would the media have taken the time to point out the contrast?

 

[1] Parents Inc, a conservative Christian organisation, lobbied against the repeal of section 59, and has since had National appoint its Executive Officer to a term as a Family Commissioner and, more recently, had $2.4million of untendered contract awarded to it.

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.

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.

Democratic Service and Repair

datePosted on 17:25, September 14th, 2009 by Lew

In the shadows of chain-store ghost towns
Where no-one walks the streets at night
A silent nation, hooked on medication
Stares into a blue flickering light.
— Calexico, Service and Repair

This verse has been on my mind rather a lot since moving to my new exurb (it’s not quite a chain-store ghost town, although there sure is one of every chain store here.) But it’s the second pair of lines I’ve dwelt most upon; a potent image of Brave New World escapism as a substitute for real-life engagement, a soma-ed out populace who’ll take what it’s given.* This is a fashionable refrain in postmodern affluent liberal polities: democracy is being undermined by apathy, generated by those who would prefer you didn’t engage in politics at all so they can just get on with running the world without pesky peons interfering.

Political engagement in NZ is fairly weak and superficial, and that is bad for democratic politics. Engagement with and understanding of both the function and the presentation of political process is critical sustenance for democracy; but note, it must be with both the function and the presentation. It can be active (marches, submissions, donations, party membership, etc.) or passive (caring about the news, writing letters-to-the-editor, talkback, bloggery, heated discussions at the pub).

Both are important. In a political network model of concentric circles, a party’s leadership is surrounded by a wider group of insiders, cadres, activists, lobbyists and so forth, surrounded in turn by the party’s wider electorate. Organised political activity will only ever be the domain of a relative few, whom we might call second-circle elites; those who are involved in the political process but who do not drive it. The major role of these second-circle elites is to act as intermediary between the first and third circles; to channel information from the electorate to the leadership and to spread politics out to the electorate. These two functions (in and out) are very different; the former involves constant, frank and honest self-appraisal, a critical assessment function which must be independent from the proselytising imperative. The latter is the proselytising imperative; it requires faith and focus and adherence to doctrine and discipline.

When the feedback loop breaks down and information is fed out but not back in, a political movement becomes hijacked by its elite base — as if the second circle can somehow substitute for the third circle, as if burning desire among a few people can somehow substitute for smouldering will among a much larger number, in apparent ignorance of the fact that votes are not distributed on the basis of intensity of feeling. Ultimately the role of second-circle elites is to promote engagement between the first and third, and where apathy reigns in a polity, it is generally due to their failure to adequately perform those gatekeeping, proselytising and critical assessment functions. But second-circle elites all too frequently blame the electorate for these failures. Often, as in NZ at present, this leads to them decrying ‘politics by focus group’ or ‘pandering to the masses’ as defence of their own ‘principled’ or ‘just plain right’ positions; a view which scorns and patronises the electorate. Often, this position is combined with the grudging acknowledgement that the masses do in fact have all the votes and must therefore be ‘pandered to’ in order to gain sufficient support to prosecute a political agenda which may or may not resemble the agenda campaigned upon. This elite-centred view of politics kills engagement and increases apathy among non-elites, and results in the self-fulfilling prophecy that the unwashed hordes make poor political decisions — they often do, because they often don’t get what they vote for and didn’t have much of a hand in defining it anyhow.

But although the elites might sneer, engagement among the so-called silent majority is highly valuable, and the number of their votes is the least part of their importance. Their scrutiny of political events, policy and discourse may not be so intense, but it is broader and more stable. Even a moderate degree of political and media literacy among a wide section of the electorate provides a valuable check on how much government, its delegated authorities, lobbyists and other political actors can get away with, raising the bar of political action and discourse and providing a check that a high degree of literacy among a small second-circle elite can never provide. This is simply the wisdom of crowds.

Political movements need to decide whether their main priority is to agitate their own partisan lines for short-term electoral gain and alienate those segments with whom they disagree, or to build a democratic infrastructure of engagement and literacy in the polity in the knowledge that greater engegament and literacy will pay dividends. Or, to put it another way, political movements need to decide how much of the one they are prepared to sacrifice to the other. It’s a tricky balance, and I don’t mean to suggest it’s a precise zero-sum tradeoff, but the project of building democratic literacy and engagement is not usually compatible with a partisan agenda, and this means accepting that some proselytisation opportunities will be missed. But if the core problem is a low standard of political action and discourse in the polity, and the imperative is to drive up the quality of political action and discourse by increasing polity-level political and media literacy, then the strategic job of the agitators should be to promote political literacy above all else; even to the partial exclusion of short-term partisan gains. In my view, too much has been sacrificed to the electoral cycle; that the government so often gets away with the ‘nine long years’ gambit, itself a propaganda device to deflect attention from some policy failure or unappealing priority decision, indicates the failure of this imperative.

The NZ electorate is not entirely unengaged, though the standard of that engagement is quite low. There have been a number of catalytic issues in recent years which have made people sit up and care about politics: the Orewa Speech, the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the Electoral Finance Act, the s59 repeal; the h debate are a few which spring readily to my mind. Most of these were created by the right for largely partisan reasons, realising that engagement was a way of taking the political initiative. It is critical to note here that engagement is not the same as literacy, but that it can lead to literacy in the long term if properly managed. While the iwi/kiwi debate and the smacking debate and so on generated much heat and little light, they provide an illustration that political activism isn’t quite hunched before the TV screen with a beer in one hand and a remote control in the other. What’s needed is a cultural change in NZ democratic politics; issues that the polity cares about, politicians who are responsive to those issues, and elites who are committed first and foremost to raising these issues and sustaining the discourse betwen the first and second circles for the good of democratic politics rather than strictly for partisan gain.

Crowdsourcing politics for democracy’s sake is preventative maintenance. It’s well overdue.

L

* Really, what will we do now that NZ’s Next Top Model has been cancelled?

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

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.

L