Crossing: the flaw

This evening the GCSB Amendment Bill passed its third reading in Parliament, 61-59, despite a desperate last-minute campaign to persuade selected government MPs to cross the floor and vote against the bill.

I’m sure everyone involved would accept it was a long shot, a last-ditch effort after every other challenge had failed. But it shares some faults with the remainder of the campaign, and the left’s political strategy more generally, which has been marked by a lack of coherence and internal consistency, poor targeting, and seemingly more at shoring up support among activists than in extending that support.


The merits of the GCSB issue were thoroughly thrashed out — the main problem is that it is an extremely complex topic about which few people have the expertise to make authoritative claims. Nevertheless, many of those people have made such statements, and the evidence is out there. This has been the strongest aspect of the “Stop the GCSB Bill” campaign more generally: its appeal to evidence.

But this was not a topic upon which government MPs were amenable to evidence. If they had been, they would surely have been swayed by testimony from the Law Society, the Human Rights Commission, and defence, security and IT experts including the former head of the GCSB itself. They were not moved by these appeals to evidence; not even slightly. They simply hold a different opinion on the merits of the GCSB Bill, one that happens to not be supported by the aforementioned experts (no doubt the PM provided another set of experts who gave them a counterview).

This is fundamentally because their motivation for passing the bill is ideological, not policy-oriented. National governments are strong on security. Whether they are or not, it’s part of their brand. They keep people safe, both at the day-to-day criminal level and at the level of transnational crime and terrorism. They are simply not willing to let some liberal bed-wetters prevent them from implementing a security system that better suits their petit-authoritarian worldview.


Calls to cross the floor arose mainly from the left-liberal activist community. The biggest problem with calling on your ideological foes to cross the floor is that they’re your ideological foes. If they cared about what you thought, they wouldn’t be your foes, and they very likely would be amenable to changing their views based on the evidence, or at least to moderating them and cooperating.

But this is war. Not war on terrorism; war on the liberals, who are the real strategic threat to this government, and are ascendant in New Zealand’s left following the success of marriage equality, the continuing strength of the Greens, relative to Labour. In a war, when your enemies offer to parley, it is a sign of weakness, and nobody could mistake left-wing activists begging the Minister of Justice for a vote to sink a key plank of her government’s legislative agenda as anything other than a sign of desperation. In a war, when your enemies offer to parley, you only accept if you can’t crush them, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women. Hard ideological power is rarely vulnerable to moral suasion.

Trying to persuade individual MPs to betray their cause from a position of such ideological and strategic isolation was never likely to have any effect other than to harden their resolve, and to increase pressure on them from within their party to toe the line. In particular, given the vitriol to which certain MPs — notably Peter Dunne, hilariously regarded as being the most likely to switch — have been subjected in recent months, a sudden switch to flattery and appeals to better nature was simply incoherent and too jarring to be credible. Even a dog, if mistreated, will bite when petted. The fact that so much abuse continued even after the charm offensive began made it doubly ineffective.

In many ways this was a concentrated version of the overall strategy of moral and evidence-based persuasion: because support for the bill has been framed in a partisan way, there’s little point in convincing your own side. The task is to convince people who, for the most part, like John Key and trust his government that they are neither likeable nor trustworthy. It’s a hard thing to do — but doubly hard when your cause gets occupied by the Occupy movement, a point that Pablo made in one of his many excellent posts on this topic recently.

Target selection

Nine MPs were selected. Not to say that there were any actually good targets, but the selections misunderstand each MP’s place within the government machine.

The most obviously-idiotic target was Judith Collins, the Minister of Justice and probably the toughest authoritarian in government, including Key himself. Converting her was simply never a happening thing. National party newcomers Paul Foster-Bell and Claudette Hauiti were almost as laughable, given that their political careers exist only at the pleasure of the party.

Peter Dunne was probably the best target six months ago, except that he has since been subject to the greatest amount of vitriol over this issue. His relationship with the government has also been weakened recently, a bond he needed to renew, which he has.

John Banks, although personally of a nature similar to Collins, is vulnerable to his party machine which could possibly have been talked around — but the activist left thinks of him (and it) as being beyond liberal redemption, in spite of his voting in favour of marriage equality.

The others (Sam Lotu-Iiga, Melissa Lee, Jami-Lee Ross, and Nicky Wagner), were no worse than anyone else in the party.

Who do you love?

The only thing that gives a non-delusional Prime Minister in this data-driven age the sort of swagger John Key has is the knowledge that the polls are solid. There have been a few public polls: Research NZ; ONE News/Colmar Brunton; 3 News/Reid Research and most recently Fairfax/Ipsos.

Campbell Live’s unscientific, self-selecting plebiscite is barely worth a mention. So of these polls, only the last gives anything like a picture of an electorate that is closely engaged with this issue; it tells us three-quarters of New Zealanders do care about the GCSB Bill. But 75% on its own means nothing. Polls told us that 80% of the electorate opposed asset sales, and look how that worked out. This poll also tells us how much they care, and the answer is: only 30% are very concerned, and 25% aren’t concerned at all. More than half trust the government to “protect their right to privacy while maintaining national security”.

Key and his government will have much better polling than this, and broken down by party allegiance, too, and that’s important — Key would be perfectly happy to alienate 30%, or even 40% of the population as long as they’re all committed Labour and Green voters, and more than half overall still basically trust him. Key said people were more interested in snapper quotas than the GCSB bill, and he’s probably right — if you read that as “people who might actually vote for him.”

What was the performance in aid of?

The major effect of this campaign was to give the activist community something to believe in, a sense that they were Doing Something, rather than just sitting there while their freedoms got gutted. It was very much attuned towards focusing existing opposition, rather than towards expanding that opposition. (This was true to a lesser extent of the public meetings and mass rallies, which effectively church services, but these did also have an important role in disseminating evidence and bringing the discourse into the mass media).

The effect has been clear: there has been no effect. While opinion polling for the left has picked up in the last few days, it remains to be seen whether this will persist.

Although this one was poorly-executed I also don’t think a “cross the floor” campaign was necessarily a bad idea. Theatre matters. Morale matters. For all the criticism, there are many positives here. One is that people have gotten angry — even if it’s only a relatively small cadre of activists, that’s something we haven’t really seen much of recently. And there are some signs the discord may spread further (though not much further, as yet).

But while Do Something campaigns can be worthy in terms of making people feel better about losing, that is often all they are good for. They are often not very effective in terms of actually winning. This campaign worked well as a salve, but as far as effectiveness goes it was badly framed and focused on the wrong objective. It was both too partisan to draw in broad support from across the ideological spectrum, and then, later (once its ideological hostility was confirmed) began to treat the government as only a semi-hostile force that might be reasoned with. A less-ideological campaign to begin with, hardening into a more rigorous strategy as it became clear that the government would remain intransigent would likely have been more effective if it could have been stitched together (admittedly a big if).

Further, focusing on the bill’s passage was unrealistic. It was a fair enough interim goal, but more realistic is to focus on the repeal of the bill — now act — when Labour and the Greens are next in government, and to use it as a lever to assist them into government. Good progress has been made towards this as well, especially in securing what seems to be solid assurances of repeal from Labour, whose prior form on civil liberties has been very mixed.

What remains to be seen is if those involved can maintain momentum for another year. If they can, and this kicks off a 14-month campaign season, then it will have been a triumph, in spite of its tactical failure.


5 thoughts on “Crossing: the flaw

  1. I didn’t expect the bill to be halted after Dunne caved, and said so, but I think it was important to be seen to try.

    It’s actually quite easy to forget that when Key first declared that the public didn’t care about the GCSB bill — and that snapper quotas were a much bigger deal — it seemed plausible that he was right. I don’t think that’s plausible now, and that wouldn’t have been the case had everyone simply packed up and gone home six weeks ago. Even the self-selecting Campbell Live poll could point to the second-highest participation rate in the show’s history — that’s not irrelevant.

    It’s also likely that the news media would have drifted away had the opposition to the bill not been as visible as it was. Instead, we got a strong editorial from the Star Times on the eve of the third reading, some laudable coverage from NBR and plenty of 6pm news. We wouldn’t have seen Key risk fronting for the bill in the way he did. We also might not have seen Shearer and Labour make such clear undertakings to scrap the bill. Shearer only went there the day after the Mt Roskill meeting.

    My sense is that people were vastly more likely to have read analyses by Rodney Harrison and Andrea Vance than if the issue hadn’t been kept alive.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Nikki Kaye in the context of #crossthefloor — she was clearly identified as morally persuadable (politically, rather less so, obviously) and the hundreds of communications she received (most of them polite, rather than hectoring) won’t have been entirely lost on her. There will be a next time on these issues.

    The Auckland Town hall meeting did tilt into partisanism, but it was also a fairly remarkable event to be at. Yes, it was mostly middle-class lefties, but there was a whole row of Chinese New Zealanders in front of me. That’s some engagement there. The fact that both the Auckland meetings were streamed to the internet was also quite significant, as is the fact that the second one was streamed not only by the organisers, but by TVNZ. That’s not trivial.

    Amongst the wider group opposed to the bill — Facebook friends — I don’t think the degree of actual knowledge about the bill was great, but the degree of politicisation was notable.

    And I think we can all agree that we’d rather have Bomber doing this stuff than fulminating, feuding and blocking everyone on Twitter :-)

  2. I agree with this post, for the most part.

    Because the constituency for this issue (the intelligence apparatus) is by its very nature insulated from public scrutiny and debate, the conflict was essentially fought by its proxies. On the one side, “trust us”, and on the other, “don’t extend that trust”. Members of the intelligence community, present and former, were not pressed to serve. Nor even were their public spokespeople. I was surprised by the level of feeling that the opposition to this bill was able to generate from within left, and eventually, the way that those feelings were able to migrate from that group into the public – through a swell of campaigning journalism and the weight of respected public figures. You suggest that 30% of the public being “very concerned” is not a high level of intensity. In this context, I think it’s remarkable, and to downplay it as a small number doesn’t make sense. When a third of the country is quite concerned (even if this poll is unrepresentative, or people overstate their intensity, it’s still a considerable fraction), and only one quarter is unconcerned, the still pond that has been the national consensus on the expansion of the domestic surveillance/security apparatus is very much covered in ripples.

    And that, more than anything, is the victory of this campaign. I’m a New Zealander who has been spied on for my political activities. Using illegal methods the police used a deep-cover spy to infiltrate left-wing and environmental organisations, and that person fed large amounts of personal information about me to the state. Many others, including those who fronted this campaign, have similar stories. These things started during the 1990s, but continued and were significantly expanded under the Clark Government, who passed large amounts of legislation to validate and expand the scope of police and intelligence action with regards to New Zealanders. That hasn’t been viewed as overshoot until now, but that’s changed with the large quantity of political theatre and the intrusion of public argument into what is usually an isolated policy area. When you put Shearer on the stage of the Auckland Town Hall, he and his party are emotionally divorced from a warm relationship with an expansionary intelligence sector.

    I’m now more confident than ever that the next Labour Government will be composed of people whose relationship to the intelligence sector will be less trusting and less willing to make concessions. It’s only a partial victory, of course, because the intelligence community has a remarkable capacity to ‘capture’ policy-makers through their near-monopoly on information and their ability to package that information. Even with a strong and strident Green Party coalition partner, Labour leaders will face situations which are framed as a ticking-time-bomb, even when the threat is distant or hypothetical.

    This is the first round of inoculation, but in order to prevent the rot spreading anti-surveillance-expansion activists will have to work thoroughly to keep their politicians isolated from arguments backed by dossiers of ‘facts’.

  3. The cross the floor initiative was doomed but spoke to a certain sector to whom niceties such as parliamentary numbers and personal morality are taken seriously. Cross party talks would have been a real indication that the whole parliament was genuine and that was not going to happen either.

    So the greybeards had to strap on the old holsters one further time and do what was done to date. State Surveillance will be a slow grower through till the next election. The ‘class’ groupings to be potentially snooped on will really get under peoples skin–what all Forest and Bird members get surveilled? but I vote national! Further examples are easy enough to think of when state assets are being flogged off and the TPPA secretly inches towards a deal.

    As confirmed in writing two years back by the NZSIS Director I was spied on too from the late 70s to early 90s, and would be surprised if am still not. Despite their assurances that I was “no longer of interest to the service”. (heh, come down for a life long activist). They would not release my files which they confirmed holding due to the 1969 Act and 1977 Amendment Act and 1993 Privacy Act which provide for still living snitches and SIS methods to be protected ahead of my right to know.

    So it is more than about tactical mis steps for some of us Lew. Jesus half the population must have this type of issue in many countries around the world and many of us like those disparaged by Mr Finlayson want NZ to be different.

  4. its good to get things organised, and get back to snapper fishing. New Zealanders are not alarmed at all, just a few poofters and gingas.

  5. Thanks Russell, George and TM for well-argued responses.

    This post started out a lot more negative than it ended up; as I worked through the effects and probable ramifications of the campaign I came to the conclusion it was actually more useful than I had initially thought — especially in terms of forcing Labour to declare against the amendments, thereby breaking the consensus, though it seems John Key himself had a sdtrong hand in that. Something that’s gotten a bit lost in the discussion is that security and intelligence aren’t just, or even mostly, domestic issues.

    I still think the polling is weak, and the basic argument that voters (or “voters that might vote for us”) don’t care overmuch remains true. This might change with time, but it will require a great deal of ongoing activism to make it so, and that activism will need to be very focused, so the topic doesn’t get subsumed into generalised anti-government hatery, or overtaken by economic or other issues, which are also important, but will contend for agenda space. Despite the commitments given by Labour and the Greens, which I believe, I think there’s still a nonzero chance that little will come of this in a post-2014 Labour/Green government, and a very strong chance that by 2017 it’ll be a dead letter.

    TM, I know there’s more at stake here than political strategy. But as with much activism in NZ there’s a sense that this issue is too important for strategy — that We Just Need To Do Something. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Huck, I understand Pablo has suggested that you shape up or ship out. Please take this as another hint that if you don’t, we will.


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