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Posts Tagged ‘Section 59’

Putting the mandate to work

datePosted on 00:41, May 2nd, 2012 by Lew

I struggle to believe the National party that read and led the public mood so well for most of the previous six years has so spectacularly lost its way. Recent months, and the past few weeks in particular, have been the government’s hardest, and only part of that is due to ministerial incompetence and bad optics. Part of it is because they have chosen policies that contradict the very narratives Key and his government have so carefully crafted.

This can’t be accidental. I think the fact that they barely won a majority despite the worst performance in a generation by the Labour party has convinced Key that this term is probably his last, and he intends to make best possible use of it. This is good strategy for them. It’s a strategy I’ve been writing about since Key was in opposition, and one that the Labour party ignored, to their detriment, until late in the last term. John Key is no mere smile-and-waver, but a man of action who, when the time is right, will act ruthlessly and decisively. He has spent his five years as leader earning the trust of the electorate, gaining a mandate, and now he intends to put that mandate to work. This country will not be the same in three years.

There are many possible examples here: privatisation of state assets is the most obvious, but is well-covered by others more informed than I am. I’ll cover three more recent topics: two are bad politics, but I can see the point to them; the last is simply a terrible idea that, if not abandoned quickly, will have profound implications for the future of New Zealand’s political discourse.

Paid parental leave

The decision to call an immediate veto on Sue Moroney’s private member’s bill extending paid parental leave was badly handled. If it were to be done, it ought to have been done immediately the bill was drawn, in an offhand way so as to frame the veto as inevitable; as it was, sufficient space was left for the idea to take root in the collective imagination of the electorate, and now the use of the veto looks anti-democratic; signalling it before it has even been debated looks doubly so, and leaves about a year for sentiment to continue to grow.

Of course, the government has the procedural right to take this action, if perhaps not the moral right to prevent Parliament from passing something that a majority of its members supports. But it chips away at the Key government’s carefully-framed appeal to being pro-middle-class, pro-family, pro-women. Unlike welfare reform, this is not an issue that only impacts people who would never vote for the National party anyway. Paid parental leave predominantly benefits middle-class (rather than working-class) families, and especially middle-class women — those who, for five years, the government has been reassuring that we are on your side. Key is personally very popular among women, and this has been central to National’s success. It looks like the government are prepared to sacrifice this on the altar of fiscal responsibility. The comparison to Barack Obama’s strategy to win a second term on the basis of strong opposition to GOP misogyny could hardly be more stark.

This is in spite of the argument on the merits: a low-cost policy that yields considerable long-term benefits of the sort the government has been anxious to create (or invent, if need be). And the arguments being levied against the scheme are particularly weird: “Is it about labour force participation, or about women spending more time with children?” Well, yes. “It’s discriminatory against non-working mothers!” Well, yes, but I don’t see any of the people making that argument supporting a Universal Motherhood Entitlement, and in fact, I distinctly remember some rhetoric about “breeding for a business” whenever such ideas are raised.

A possible reason for this bad veto call is that it foreshadows a future softening of National’s position on the topic; as Key did with the Section 59 bill, when it looks close to passing the government will signal support, in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation.

Or, maybe it’s just that they don’t care any more — so they’re unpopular, so what?

Student entitlements

The latter argument also explains the decision, announced today, to limit the availability of student allowances and require higher repayments of student loans, although not completely. This is bound to be popular with those who have forgotten (or who never experienced) how hard it was to undertake tertiary study and build a career without Daddy’s cash and connections, and those of the generations who had it all laid on for them by the taxpayers of their day. But it will be less popular among the growing ranks of young voters, and it will be less popular among the parents of those young voters, who are having to provide financial support to their kids through their 20s and in some cases into their 30s, because said kids are finding the economic dream is more rosy than the reality.

This policy is also anti-middle-class, anti-family, and anti-women: because the middle class includes most of those who can afford to (and have the social and cultural capital to) undertake tertiary study; because it places an additional burden on their parents, and because women are already disadvantaged in terms of earning power, and therefore have less ability to avoid or pay back loans. It also erodes National’s aspirational, high-productivity, catch-up-with-Australia narrative, by raising the barrier to becoming qualified to do the high-productivity jobs that such a goal requires. More crucially, it erodes National’s “money in your pocket” narrative by imposing upon borrowers a higher effective marginal tax rate — over and above the existing 10% higher effective marginal tax rate — making it harder to survive on the wages that come with those jobs.

It could be worse. They’re not reintroducing student loan interest. But it is only the first budget of the term, and the same reasoning — this is good because it allows borrowers to pay off their loans sooner, and it will provide cost savings for the government — is true in spades when you charge interest. People can already pay their loans back more quickly if they choose — it is easy to do. People don’t, because wages are low and the cost of living is high, so the government wants to force them to do so. So much for choices.

Refugees

Although I disagree with them, there is some political justification behind both these previous positions. But nothing explains the government’s decision to take a harder stance against asylum seekers. In the Australian context (and in the USA and the UK, although I know less about these), immigration and the treatment of asylum seekers is a political bonfire. This is most obvious in terms of human life and potential. Able, resourceful and motivated people are imprisoned for months or years, barely treated as humans, and allowed to become disenchanted and alienated while hostile bureaucrats decide their fate, and cynical politicians on all sides use them as ideological tokens in a dire game — before being released into society to fulfill the grim expectations that have been laid upon them. But it is also a bonfire for political capital — the more you chuck on, the brighter it burns — and for reasoned discourse. Politicians, commentators, lobbyists and hacks of all descriptions dance around this fire like deranged cultists which, in a sense, they are.

The immigration debate in Australia, though it barely deserves that name, is toxic, internecine, and intractable; it has been propagandised to the point where it is practically useless as a policy-formation tool, or as a means of gauging or guiding public sentiment. It sets light to everything it touches; people take leave of their senses and run around shrieking whatever slogans fit their lizard-brain prejudices. The word “sense” is used so often it ceases to have any meaning: all is caricature, and in keeping with this, other ordinary words also lose their value: assurances that asylum seekers will be treated “fairly” or that systems will be “efficient” would not be recognised as such by an impartial observer. Somehow, it becomes possible to simultaneously believe that the policies are targeted against “people-smugglers”, while being fully aware that the punitive costs imposed by such regimes are suffered by the smugglers’ victims. Otherwise-reasonable people resort to idiotic bourgeois framing such as “jumping the queue” — as if it’s OK to escape from political or religious persecution, if only you do so in a polite and orderly fashion. Mind the gap!

What makes it all the more stupid is that a brown tide of refugees in rusty boats is not even an issue for us: we are simply too isolated, and surrounded by waters too hostile, to be a viable destination. Unfortunately this fact will not be sufficient to prevent people from getting worked up about it, and demanding that Something Be Done. Someone on twitter recently said that anyone who could get a boatload of people here from the third world deserved a beer and our congratulations, and I couldn’t agree more. We need people with the degree of daring, toughness and pioneer spirit to make such a journey, and qualities such as these were once most highly prized.

This policy also undercuts National’s mythology about itself, most assiduously cultivated over the past year in preparation for the sale of the Crafar farms and other assets — of New Zealand as a land of opportunity, welcoming to outsiders and open for business. National have been swift to condemn any deviation from this line as xenophobic, and yet this is somehow different. It is worse than a solution in search of a problem — it is a cure that is far more harmful than its ailment.

What’s more, while I can see the underlying political reasoning behind the two other policies I’ve discussed here, I can’t see the reasoning for this one. Most likely it is an attempt to cultivate some love in redneck-talkback land; to shore up slipping sentiment among the culturally-conservative base that National used to own. But even in this it is misguided: this is not a debate that does any major party any good. It is an opportunity for extremists to grandstand, to pander to society’s most regressive elements. It crowds out meaningful discussion of other matters, it makes reason and compromise impossible, and what’s worst: it never dies. We saw a glimpse of this with the Ahmed Zaoui case; by fearmongering about boatloads of Chinese en route from Darwin on the basis of just one isolated case National runs the risk of admitting this sort of idiocy to the national conversation permanently.

And that might be this government’s legacy. The former two topics, while they will change New Zealand’s politics in meaningful ways, are essentially part of the normal partisan ebb and flow. Asset sales is much bigger; other topics, like primary and secondary education reform and the proposal to cap government expenditure will also have longer-term and more profound impacts. The National government has a mandate, and they are using it while they can, in the knowledge that you can’t take it with you when you go. That is understandable, if perhaps regrettable.

But to use such a mandate to permanently poison New Zealand’s discourse, willingly driving it towards a permanent state of cultural war is a different sort of politics altogether — deeper, more ancient, harder to control, and much more dangerous. I hope I’m wrong.

L

A discourse on David Shearer and the identity politics thing

datePosted on 20:51, December 14th, 2011 by Lew

For my sins, over the past week or so I have been engaging at The Standard again. It’s been a rather tiresome business (for them as well, I’m sure) but has yielded some lucid moments. One exchange between “Puddleglum”, Anthony and I in the bowels of an open mike thread has been particularly useful, and since it contains my views on a question I am often asked, I’d rather it not end up down the memory hole. I reproduce it here in full (without the benefit of editing; so it’s a bit rough).

[I originally said Anthony was the author FKA “r0b” at The Standard — this isn’t the case; it’s some other Anthony. My mistake, and thanks to the r0b, Anthony Robins, for pointing it out.] Puddleglum has a blog himself — thepoliticalscientist.org — that is well worth reading.

Puddleglum
Hi Lew,

If Armstrong is correct in the following quotation (and this leadership race has all been about the ‘blokes’ battling the ‘minorities’ and the ‘politically correct’), then won’t the election of Shearer shift Labour more towards the right wing, social conservatism that you appear not to like about NZF?

“Shearer will bring change by making the party less hostage to the political correctness that still plagues its image. He is interested in things that work, rather than whether they fit the party’s doctrine. “

I may misunderstand where your ‘loyalties’ or preferences lie, but it does seem odd if you are supporting a shift in Labour’s focus towards something that would be much more compatible with NZF (including Prosser and Peters, neither of whom strike me as staunch upholders of ‘political correctness’), given how little regard you appear to have for NZF.

(As an aside, I’m not sure why Armstrong is so sure he knows Shearer’s mind – he’s obviously heard Shearer say more than he’s been reported as saying – but I guess he is a political journalist … It would have been good to hear Shearer say these things to the public if, indeed, Armstrong has it from the horse’s mouth, as his tone strongly implies – “Shearer will …”, etc..).

Lew
Hey PG,

I’m not convinced by this argument that Shearer represents the forthcoming defenestration of Māori, women, gays, the disabled, and so forth as a matter of doctrine, although folk who hope it does have been eager to say so — Armstrong, Audrey Young, Trotter amongst them. Shearer’s MSc was on the tension between Māori cultural values and environmental resource management, and he has worked on behalf of Māori in that field, preparing Tainui’s land claim to the Waitangi Tribunal and looking at sultural issues around wastewater treatment in Auckland. I have as yet seen no evidence that Shearer represents the social “right” of the party either. His pairing with Robertson as deputy certainly seems to counterindicate that argument. He says he’s “right in the middle” of Labour, though I suppose he would say that. I am open to persuasion on both these points, however, and if such defenestration does occur I may yet come to regret my support for Team Shearer.

But I think there’s also a misreading of my “loyalties”. The much-loved canard around here and at Trotter’s place is that I want Labour to be an “identity politics” party, whereas, in actuality, I want an end to the infighting that pits “the workers” against other marginalised groups or seeks to subsume everyone’s needs to those of straight white blue-collar blokes. All must have a presence within any progressive movement. I think there’s a false dichotomy that to appeal to “middle New Zealand” a party must be just a wee bit racist, homophobic and sexist, because that’s what “middle New Zealand” is. I don’t agree; although I can see how that is one route to popularity, I don’t think it’s one that’s very suitable for Labour.

Notwithstanding all of that I do think that being able to break the factionalisation and patronage — crudely expressed by Damien O’Connor — that has resulted in a weak list and a dysfunctional party apparatus is the most crucial task facing Shearer, and I can see how this could be spun against him. But on balance, getting the overall institutional and overall health of the party back on track is the priority. As long as it’s not simply replacing one lot of factions with another.

L

Anthony
It really depends if he plays zero-sum loss/gain, instead of fixing problems that when addressed help everyone. But even though I preferred Cunliffe I don’t think Shearer is a evil bastard who will throw women, gays and Maori under the bus.

It’s just convincing insecure pricks like Armstrong that they’re not missing out (and normal people who are perfectly fine), while they lift everyone up.

Been one of the problems with the left for a while – not taking middle NZ with them in their thinking and just expecting them to “get it” after it’s done and dusted.

You can see how the Nats do it better with their policy formation and with the task forces they set up, they admit there is a problem that needs to be solved in some way, get a team of “experts” in place, get feedback from all quarters then create policy based on it (even if they were planning that policy all along). It’s a great way to create a narrative that the electorate can follow to understand policy or at least get some understanding that a problem that needs to be solved exists in the first place.

If it looks in the slightest way controversial or a potential wedge issue they will use this method.

Puddleglum
As I said, “If Armstrong is correct …”

I think previously you’ve noted the importance of symbolism (e.g., in the early days of the MP coalescing with National).

There is a danger that the symbolic projection being attempted (‘we are ordinary New Zealanders too’ – whatever that means) can box Labour in when it comes to ‘judgment calls’ on those social issues.

Trying to benefit electorally from symbols you don’t really believe in (in its crudest form, ‘dogwhistling’) can bite you back.

I think, for example, that Shearer may well be keen not to “get in front” of middle New Zealand on any of these issues (wasn’t that one of the concerns about Clark’s government, for ‘middle New Zealand’?).

That’s fine and pragmatic, and doesn’t mean necessarily being a little bit racist, homophobic, or whatever. But it might mean muting your commentary and positioning on those issues a tad.

And that could make some, at least, leap from the windows rather than waiting to be ‘defenestrated’.

I think that’s the challenge with the more ‘centrist’ positioning.

Lew
Anthony, I agree with all of that.

PG, I think that is the challenge with a more “centrist” positioning, but ultimately the long game is what matters. It’s mostly futile to try to campaign outright on unpopular topics — or those that are “in front” of popular thought, as you aptly put it — when you don’t control the agenda. Clark found out in 2004/5 when Brash hijacked the agenda at Orewa after a very progressive first term, and again in 2008 when the s59 repeal became a de facto government bill about the childless lesbians Helen Clark and Sue Bradford* wanting to personally bring up Waitakere Man’s kids.

I daresay there will be a lot of ideological austerity shared about over the coming term, not limited to the usual whipping children of progressive movements, but likely encompassing the unions and hard-left factions as well (and much of this may be pinned on Shearer to frame him as a “right” leader, when his hand may have been forced by political circumstance.) The project is to rebuild Labour as a political force, because if Labour continues to decline nobody — not Māori, not women, not the unions — is going to benefit.

Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. My major stipulation is that whatever gets nudged out onto the ledge, as it were, is done with due engagement and consideration of those it impacts, not simply decreed by the leadership as being “not a priority” (and if you disagree you’re a hater and a wrecker).

L

* Notwithstanding the fact that neither are lesbians, and Sue Bradford isn’t childless.

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.

L

Clearly not

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

Make your own!

(Thanks to Naly D).

L

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.

L

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?

L

Coddington makes sense on smacking

datePosted on 21:55, June 21st, 2009 by Lew

Words I never thought I’d write, but good grief, The Yes Vote has linked me to proof-positive that despite her previous crimes against logic and argumentation, not to mention evidence, Deborah Coddington can write wisdom from time to time. Her HoS column today makes a strong liberal* case against the S59 referendum by killing** the sacred cow that cries of “nanny state!” are pure and unassailable positions of principle, and arguing that when it comes to discipline there’s a gap between principle and implementation into which society must not permit children to fall.

Act’s John Boscawen has a bill to amend Section 59 – again – so it will be “no longer a crime to use reasonable force” if parents discipline a child.
Here we go, loop de loop. Boscawen says he’s sick of nine years of Labour’s nanny state telling parents what to do, but isn’t this more of the same? You can use a light smack, but not a hard smack? Why not a good, old-fashioned razor-stropping like my father used to give me, followed by Mum with the wooden spoon, and while you’re at it John, bring back six of the best in schools for bad girls like me – never did us any harm, did it?
Truth is, no matter how hard politicians try to flannel, they’re always telling us what to do. Paula Bennett said she didn’t think a smack as part of good parental correction should be a criminal offence and she didn’t want to go into homes and tell people how to parent.
Oh really? Not even when they’re disciplining with the jug cord or vacuum cleaner pipe?

But for the last sentence, this could pass for the usual sort of faux-outraged don’t-tread-on-me doggerel. But what’s remarkable about the last sentence is that it rejects the typical anti-statist line that all intrusions into private affairs are equal and equally meritless – it recognises that the state has a role to play in protecting children from the (however well-meaning) depredations of their parents and that there is a strong public good in the appropriate exercise of that role.

This is based on a deeper argument about the rights of the individual – and the assertion that children are individuals with rights of their own, not their parents’ belongings to be treated according to parents’ sovereign wishes.

It’s no wonder children are not valued as individuals in this country, but instead as some sort of chattel belonging to adults until they reach some magic age – 16 or 18 or 20. We do not own our children, a fact that has yet to be driven home to those selfish individuals who fight their way through the Family Court over who has the offspring, ensuring any remaining family happiness is destroyed forever.
Sadly, I don’t ever see a future in this country where all children are treasured, despite all the good work done by many organisations and individuals.
It’s not just about eliminating the beatings, it includes respecting young people’s presence. I hate it when parents don’t introduce their children to me, as if they don’t exist.

Because, in truth, nobody believes that parents have an unassailable right to treat their children as they please*** – it’s just that people of various political stripes like to be seen to support parental sovereignty without also being on the hook for the hard decisions such a position requires.

Policy is about value judgements, and if the AAS lobby were honest they’d be arguing the value of corporal punishment in parenting: arguing that it will strengthen families, grow good children and create a better society; and how it will do so. To an extent Larry Baldock has tried (33 minute audio), but only to an extent, because even those at the heart of the AAS lobby recognise the weakness of their position in strict analytical terms. So they fall back on symbolic arguments they don’t really believe in, but which are malleable enough to be twisted around to support their misguided cause.

People who claim pure and unassailable statements of principle in terms of policy implementation is usually selling you a bill of goods, but it’s nice for someone so strongly (shall we say) ideological to be pointing it out. More power to your typing fingers, Deborah.

L

* The classical kind, not the latte-sipping kind.
** Or at least beating it with a jug-cord.
*** Ok, some people seem to.

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.”

L

* 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.

L

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