A PRC Fifth Column in NZ? (With Updated Links)

In early December the New Citizen Party registered with the Electoral Commission and declared its intention to contest this year’s elections, starting with the Botany by-election caused by Pansy Wong’s resignation in disgrace from Parliament. Taking a page from the Maori Party, the NCP declared that it would be a vehicle for the representation of new, mostly Asian, migrant’s interests in the NZ political system, interests that are not fully given voice within extant political parties. With an emphasis on economic policy and law and order issues, the NCP proposes to represent not only mainland Chinese migrants, but also Koreans, Taiwanese, Japanese, Singaporeans, Indians, non-native Whites and even Maori and Pakeha (i.e. the Botany demographic). That will be a tall order.

The announced leaders of the NCP include Jack Chen, who was involved in the Chinese takeover bid for Crafar Farms (as a representative of Natural Dairy NZ, a subsidiary of the Chinese government controlled Jin Hui Mining Corporation); disgraced Labour Party candidate Stephen Ching (who solicited bribes for political favours in 2005); the pro-PRC Chinese-language newspaper editor Jerry Wen Yang; and Paul Young, who is also of Chinese descent and a principle of Asia Marketing and Advertising Consultants (Mr. Young handled the registration process and has said that his role as NCP Secretary is a temporary formality in order to meet legal requirements, and that he will stand down once the party leadership is finalised. As it turns out, he is NCP candidate for Botany). Although unconfirmed, there are reports that Sammy Wong, Pansy Wong’s husband and the cause of her demise by involving her in a commercial transaction during a taxpayer trip to the PRC, is part of the NCP leadership or at least involved in its strategic decision-making and financing.

In early January the NCP leadership, minus Mr. Young, met in Beijing to discuss a strategy for winning the by-election and to chart a course for its campaign this year. Holding a major party meeting in a foreign capital is interesting enough, because it shows an overt connection with the PRC that is bound to raise eyebrows in some circles (which is a tame reaction by comparison–some democracies forbid the funding, meeting  and sponsorship of political parties in and by foreign powers). What is more interesting is the question of whether the connection to Beijing is more intimate than the NCP has revealed to date, and extends beyond the usual business links that all political parties cultivate in order to peddle influence and financially support their activities (although the direct connection to a foreign government and/or corporations would be a a step beyond what is the usual course of affairs in NZ business-political party relations).

Under MMP, people have a right to organise a political party as they see fit, and as far as I can tell there are no prohibitions on such parties being organised and funded by foreign agents. But there remains the question as to whether the NCP is not so much a vehicle for the representation of new migrant’s interests in the NZ political system as it is a front for PRC economic interests and a means of political influence-mongering and intelligence gathering. In other words, is the NCP a PRC fifth column?

The reason this question must be asked is that, given its disadvantages in Signals (SIGINT) and Technical Intelligence (TECHINT)-gathering capabilities,  the PRC invests heavily in the ethnic Chinese diaspora for human intelligence gathering work. Using business, student and permanent resident visa schemes in targeted countries, the PRC places intelligence-gatherers in places where they can collect tactical as well as strategic intelligence using a variety of means. It also uses monetary incentives to curry favourable attitudes amongst local elites, all in the interest of furthering PRC strategic objectives in the country in question. Such activities have been amply evident in places such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and the Cook Islands, as well as regional organisations such as the Pacific Island Forum.

All of this is well known to Western security agencies and measures have been implemented to monitor, if not counter PRC initiatives in that field. But what if the PRC were to secure political representation in a foreign government via open electoral contestation within the limits of the law? NZ has already seen a case where a cabinet minister (Wong) was influenced by an individual (her husband) with direct and close connections to the PRC regime. Although her portfolio was not strategically sensitive, she did attend cabinet and caucus meetings where more sensitive issues of national and party policy were bound to have been discussed, and it is not improbable to think that her pillow and dinner table talk with Sammy Wong might involve some of those issues (note that I am not saying that Mrs. Wong would necessarily have any idea that Sammy Wong was a PRC agent if he were one. What I am saying is that the appearance of a conflict of interest extends beyond the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for her travel when on private business on her husband’s behalf, and that may be the more serious reason why she was forced to resign).

If the PRC has direct involvement with the NCP, an electoral victory by the latter would raise the possibility of its entering into coalition with one of the major parties, most likely the party in power. That would give it direct access to NZ government policy deliberations, privileged information about business and security matters as well as offer a means of extending its influence directly into the NZ cabinet. This may or may not be a bad thing, depending on one’s perspective. But the question has to be asked whether Kiwis would accept similar direct US, Iranian, British, Afghan or Australian influence in government decision-making even if it did not involve adversarial intelligence-gathering. Judging from the reaction to revelations in wikileaks cables that some NZ citizens in positions of power provided “insider” information to the US embassy in Wellington, one would suspect that the answer is “no.”

The (hypothetical) situation of the NCP being used as a PRC front with intelligence-gathering duties within parliament is made all the more interesting by recent changes ordered by the National government with regards to the SIS spying on MPs. The result of the scandal caused by revelations that the SIS spied on Green MPs for decades, John Key ordered that the SIS no longer spy on MPs. That means that a NCP MP working for the PRC could conduct his or her intelligence-gathering activities with relative impunity unless there are provisions in the revamped domestic espionage and counter-espionage charter that specifically provides for exceptions to the no-spying-on MPs rule. But if the exception is invoked that could undermine broader counter-intelligence efforts with regards to the PRC. The conundrum produced by this hypothetical but potential scenario, in other words, is quite exquisite.

Less people feel that these questions are occasioned by racial or ethnic bias, let it be clear that it is not. The questions refer to the PRC, an authoritarian regime, and not to the Chinese or any other ethnic group. As mentioned in a previous paragraph, the same questions could be asked of local political parties directly controlled or overtly influenced by any other foreign power regardless of regime type. So the issue is about who controls the NCP as opposed to who ultimately will represent it.

Bringing the issue up may seem provocative and perhaps un-PC, but given the Beijing meeting, the people currently in NCP leadership positions and given the PRC’s modus operandi when it comes to deploying intelligence assets and extending its influence into foreign governments, it needs to be raised.

In light of the above, for its own sake and in the interest of democratic transparency it behooves the NCP to open its books and reveal its links (should they exist) to the PRC, directly or indirectly. It behooves the NCP to make clear where its loyalties lie and to disprove apriori the suspicion that it may be working as a foreign-backed front in the NZ political system. And given that the Botany by-election will be held in less than two months, that process of proactive accountability needs to begin now.

UPDATE: Since there is some debate as to how I came to my speculation in this post, here are a couple of links that detail PRC intelligence-gathering characteristics: http://www.stratfor.com/node/156898/analysis/20100314_intelligence_services_part_1_spying_chinese_characteristics

and : http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110119-chinese-espionage-and-french-trade-secrets

Upon reading the links, does my conjecture still seem crazy (or bigoted)?

Squandering Political Opportunity.

The dramatic reversal in the Democrat’s fortunes since November 2008 and their impending defeat in Tuesday’s mid-term elections raises the question of how things went so wrong for them in such as short time. Needless to say, the situation they inherited did not help: a major recession with near record unemployment, bankruptcies and home foreclosures, two wars of occupation, immigration concerns and a deeply polarised electorate. Even so, President Obama had a wave of popular support, the Democrats gained control of Congress, there was a mood for change in the country and the world was sympathetic to the incoming administration. Inherited obstacles notwithstanding, the scene was set for a major shift in direction under consolidated Democratic leadership for years to come.

Instead,  the Democrats have foundered while the GOP-Conservative opposition has rebounded and mounted a formidable challenge that threatens to undermine any hope for significant alterations in US policy direction. The immediate reasons for this Republican resurgence and the pallorous state of the Democratic Party (and the President) in the run-up to the midterms has more to do with the latter’s strategic and tactical errors rather than the former’s platform for governance. The Democrat errors can be enumerated, and will be summarised here.

The first strategic error was to believe that playing a centrist game was going to work. That may have succeeded in years gone by, but with an Republican opposition operating off a script of obstructionism, fear-mongering, personal denigration, xenophobia and cultivation of populist ignorance, it was never going to prosper in today’s political climate. Appeasing a disloyal opposition simply encourages it to become more vicious in its attacks, particularly when it has a partisan media working on its side. Thus the “Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist” and “Pelosi-Reid deficit spender” memes that have reverberated from the moment the Obama administration took office and the Democrats gained control of Congress.

What the President and his party should have done is staked out an explicitly Liberal-Left policy agenda that starkly differentiated their (relatively, given that it is in the US) progressive and pro-active  approaches to the nation’s woes. They were going to be vilified anyway, so the stark differentiation of their platform from the reactionary and failed GOP approach would have clarified the lines of debate in ways that the public could clearly understand, both in terms of where the fault lay with regards to the economic woes of the country as well as in the solution set being offered as an alternative. After all, the US has not had anything remotely close to a “progressive ” policy agenda (and I say this phrase advisedly simply because what passes for progressive in the US is centrist is most other liberal democracies) since the early days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and the inherited economic and political conditions were ripe for a bold move away from the failed policies of the Bush 43 administration. That would have been a real agenda for change.

Since the Democrats did not do so, they failed on a second strategic level: they failed to impose the terms of the policy debate and ceded that space to the Fox and talkback-led conservative opposition. Since the latter had little to offer other than invective, this allowed them to turn to the usual diversionary wedge issues in order to gain political traction: ethnic conflict, cultural mores, “socialism,” and taxation. Whatever the administration’s accomplishments (and there have been a number, including nuclear arms reductions with the Russians and the gradual military exit from Iraq), these have been lost amid the din of conservative outrage about sins more imaginary than real.

Thus the Democrats found themselves on the defensive even as they tabled their policy agenda. Since those who dictate the terms of debate are those who win the debate, that meant that they were fighting a losing battle from the get-go.

They compounded these strategic errors at a tactical level. President Obama granted leadership of the legislative agenda to his Congressional counterparts. That was a mistake. The November 2008 elections were about him, not the Congressional leadership. The Democratic take-over of both Congressional majorities was more a result of coat-tailing on the President’s popularity than on the intrinsic merits of Democratic candidates themselves. Obama had a mandate, and he had the political capital surplus to spend; Congress did not, and in fact remained one of the country’s most detested institutions even after his election. Thus, by delegating leadership on the legislative agenda to the likes of Pelosi and Reid (which he likely did in deference to his former senior colleagues), President Obama ceded his bully pulpit to the circus on the Hill. That gave the impression that he was weak and insecure, which in turn gave the Republicans space to go on the attack against “entrenched interests” and all the other failures of the DC-based “liberal elite.”

The tactical error was compounded by the choice of battles to commence with. Instead of focusing on mortgage relief and rescue for desperate homeowners, serious financial market reform, education opportunity enhancement, immigration policy adjustment and re-orientation of US military commitments abroad (among any number of policy areas), the President and Congress chose to address health care first. Although it is obviously needed given the deficiencies of the US private health care system, it was simply too contentious and big a problem to tackle at the onset given the image of Presidential lack of experience and his conciliatory nature. Democratic strategists may have believed that they had to spend the President’s political capital early so as to ensure its passage, but in fact taking that policy issue as the first order of business under Congressional leadership direction hamstrung the Democrats even if they succeeded in passing a watered-down version of health care reform that provides some level of universal benefit to all citizens.

Put another way: the last thing the American public wanted to hear at a time of deep recession and after the financial bail-outs of the banking and automobile industries was that more public money would be spent of health care and that future taxes would reflect that increased level of deficit spending. Compared to the billion dollar figures being bandied about with regard to health care reform, Obama’s “middle class tax cut” (for those earning US$250,000 or less) and tax rebate (amounting to $500 per household) were seen as negligible drops in the bucket and meaningless political sop thrown for opportunistic purposes. For those who had spent a lifetime of paying for private insurance, it also seemed be a case of the indolent, irresponsible and unmotivated being gifted, at taxpayer expense, benefits that they did not deserve. Once the Republican-conservative spin machine got a hold of the issue, the spectre of “socialised” medicine replete with “death panels,” lack of individual choice, limits on care, endless delays and assorted other deficiencies soon dominated public discourse regardless of Democrat attempts to clarify the issue.

The combination of these four factors–failure to head to the Left and carve out a distinct position, ceding the terms of political debate to the opposition, allowing Congress to set the legislative agenda and choosing to reform health care as the first priority–set the stage for the political train wreck that is the Democrat’s midterm election campaign. To that can be added a failure to realise early that Republican operatives are using the Tea Party movement as a Trojan Horse with which to re-gain political momentum and a return to power. Similarly, the White House chose to ignore rather than frontally confront the “Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist”  allegations until they were well entrenched in the public consciousness–a full twenty percent of the US electorate now believe that the President is one, the other, or all three. It is too late to bolt the door against such attacks.

Some argue that the Democrats are playing to lose because the inevitable gridlock that will follow from Tuesday’s vote will allow the President to paint the Republicans as do-nothing obstructionists without a real agenda for solving national problems. That could be true if the Republicans do not win the Senate as well as the House, but if they win both branches then they will have the ability to impose a legislative agenda that among other things will repeal the health care reforms and other aspects of the Democrat’s agenda that have been accomplished so far. That puts the ball in the President’s court because it forces him to exercise his veto in order to salvage his original program, which in turn casts him as the obstructionist during the two years leading into the 2012 presidential election.

The bottom line is that although the Republican-conservative opposition play extremely dirty, the Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for this impending election fiasco. If Clausewitz is correct in his assertion that war is politics by other means, than the reverse is equally true: politics is war by other means. The goal is to win, pure and simple, and that means that if the opponent is going to play dirty then the governing party must understand what it is up against and counter it decisively without equivocating about the niceties involved. Rather than understand this very simple logic, the Democrats returned to form, tried to play nicely to the center, tried to respect the separation of powers mythos that is ingrained in US political folklore, tried to be civil in the face of a disloyal opposition and tried to embark on big policy reforms before the the President and his new Congressional counterparts had fully moved into their offices. For their efforts they are going to get hammered on Tuesday.

The US as the new Greece.

Watching the lead up to what will be a major Republican and Tea Party comeback in the upcoming US midterm elections, and having spent an earlier part of the year in Greece, I cannot but help but be struck by the parallels between the two countries. This may seem crazy, but sometimes what is obvious is not necessarily apparent.

The US and Greece are saddled with immense debt, most of it public. Both have extremely large state bureacracies that consume an inordinate amount of the tax base. Both have lived, in their personal and public consumption, way beyond their means over the last two decades, riding the wave of financial sector excess and lving off real estate and other speculative bubbles that did not, in fact, significantly contribute to national productive rates.

In each case immediate past centre-right governments contributed to the false sense of security by allowing the financial sector to operate with considerable degrees of autonomy and lack of oversight, reduced taxes for the wealthiest sectors of the population and corporations, and spent money well in excess of state revenues. In Greece state expenditures went into a bloated welfare system that was designed to prop up living standards that are seen as a birthright of all Greeks; in the US, the excess state spending went into war. In both instances the center-right governments increased state spending and the public deficits that accompanied them. In both cases they were turned out at the polls in the past two years.

Center-left governments replaced the discredited right. They inherited unsustainable deficits that will take years to redress and embarked on economic reform programs that were designed to cut the public deficit and increase economic efficiency over the long term. In Greece this meant slashing the public workforce, decreasing public salaries and welfare benefits while offering a package of tax incentives to small and medium business so that they could innovate, expand and thereby take up the slack produced by reductions in the public workforce.

In the US the economic stimulus program was designed to prop up and revitalise at-risk major industries (the automobile and financial sectors in particular) while providing tax relief for 95 percent of the working population. A national health program was instituted that, even though watered down and more pro-business than pro-consumer and nowhere close to socialised medicine,  provides for minimum health coverage for the majority of the population. Selective regulation on the financial sector was legislated, although this worked more on the margins of the system rather than at its core. Military spending was cut at the corners, and in a number of cases companies that received financial bail-out packages have begun to re-pay their debts.  In effect, although in the US public spending increased over the short term with the stimulus and health care packages, the design is oriented towards lowering the overall public spending bill within five to ten years while maintaining a  disproportionate emphasis on “defense.” That is the American way.

In both instances some or most of the center-right opposition in the legislature supported the economic reform packages of the government, but backtracked when confronted by public reaction. In both cases that backtracking led them to move towards the zealot wing of their popular base. That has consequences.

The reason? In each case there was an immediate, reflexive and largely unthinking  public backlash against the reform measures. Following Greek protest tradition, often violent strikes and demonstrations have engulfed the country from the moment austerity measures were announced. Although the protests are led by unions and other elements of the agitational Left, the real beneficiaries of the crisis are the hard Right, who have seen an opportunity to engage in nationalist-populist demagogery in which “foreign interests,’ illegal migrants, “Communists” and a host of other suspected culprits are blamed for the country’s woes.

In the US attempts at reform have been met by a wave of right wing backlash among the mostly white middle classes, who also blame illegal migrants, “Socialists” and other purported “progressives” as well as atheistic liberal homosexual-enabling secular humanists for the decline of Empire. At public forums many vented their anger by calling for a “revolution” or at least the ovethrow of the Washington elite. Some of them turned up armed to make their point.  They have a movement not unlike the Greek ultra-nationalists. It is called the Tea Party.

What is striking about both hard right wing resurgences is that they stand to gain the most from upcoming elections simply by blaming the governing center left administrations without offering a plausible solution to the problems of the day and near future. Both want to return to something long gone. Both want lower, not more taxes, apparently not understanding that in the case of Greece that national pasttimes of tax avoidance, island vacation homes and reliance on the state for pensions, social security and universal health care are contradictory and incompatible. In the US the pejoratively labeled “Tea Baggers” apparently have not connected the dots between maintaining a massive military apparatus that consumes 6 percent of GDP, is fighting two wars of occupation and at least a dozen small irregular conflicts simultaneously, has a presence in 150 countries and deploys three carrier task forces comprised of 7 ships and 75 aircraft at sea at any one time (no other country can deploy even one), and the need for a substantial tax base. Nor can they see that the party that they support is the one that has the most extensive ties to the Wall Street giants that played loose with their money in the game of financial roulette known as the sub-prime lending market that has now come a cropper. Instead they rail against welfare queens and “illegals” stealing the jobs most Americans disdain.

In both countries the conscious anti-intellectualism of the Right is manifest.  They want simple solutions to complex problems, they want the solutions to benefit them without requiring any sacrifice, and they want it all to happen yesterday. Reflexively ignorant political champions lead the charge and rally the masses in each case.

Most of all, it is historical myopia, an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, the lack of acceptance of responsibility and the shifting of blame that ties the US and Greek public together in their rightwards march. Both cultures prefer to forget the immediate past that led to these tough times and instead focus on a mythical past in which the Nation was strong, proud and united in its demographic homogeneity and cultural mores. Both cultures believe that they are special and especially deserving because fortuitous circumstance determined that they were born Greek or American. Neither culture embraces the notion of individual and collective responsibility as a majority ethos anymore. Instead, the common approach is to blame others for individual failure and collective misfortune.  Both right wing movements have little to offer than hatred for central government elites, current reform policy, bankers of “dubious” persuasion and all the “others” who instigated the entire mess. Mutatis mutandis, there are faint echoes of interwar Europe in all of this.

That may be a basis for victory in any contemporary elections given the circumstances, but it is certainly no blueprint for national regeneration. History has repeatedly shown that national-populist lurches to the right produce more anomie and retrogression than progress. For the latter to occur, people will have to first take individual and collective responsibility about their role in the process of decline. Then they will have to accept the costs of redressing that decline which means that they will need to assume the burden of altered lifestyles no longer easily bought on the back of cheap credit, deficit spending and overinflated notions of national grandeur. They will then have to grin and bear it during the tough times so that their children and grandchildren will prosper under different conditions.

None of that is going to happen anytime soon.

Local Government Elections 2010

Just bullet points from me:

  • Len Brown by 60,000 votes over John Banks for Supercity Mayor. How about all those people who said his so-called outburst would be the death of him? Len Brown knows who his people are; he knows how to speak to them, and now he speaks for them. I can’t take any credit for the prediction, but this looks to me like the tale of differing personal narratives.
  • But the biggest surprise isn’t Brown’s win: it’s Annette Main narrowly beating Michael Laws’ sock-puppet and long-term deputy Dot McKinnon for the Whanganui mayoralty. McKinnon apparently didn’t stand for council, so she’s gone. Main is an utterly different politician from Laws and his lot; this represents a genuine change of direction. Laws will remain as a councillor, and his being forced to submit to the leadership of a woman he can’t control will be worth the price of admission on its own.
  • It pays to vote. Some results tweeted by Philip Lyth make this clear: election contests decided by 23, five and just three votes in Upper Hutt and Carterton. More crucially, for the Wellington mayoralty, Celia Wade-Brown is just 40 votes behind incumbent Kerry Prendergast, with about 900 specials still to count. Damn, that’s a lot of policy difference resting on very little. Stephen Judd tweets the following: “I’m totally serious: if Celia WB needs to lawyer up for a recount etc, I’ll donate.” I’ll bet he’s not alone, and if it’s this close after the specials are counted it’ll be a worthy cause.
  • On the other hand, Eric Crampton makes a reasonable case about why he doesn’t vote. It’s as good an argument as I’ve seen, but I still don’t really buy it.
  • Jim Anderton: I’ve got a lot of time for you, but honestly, you were well beaten by Bob Parker and there’s no use complaining about the earthquake and your inability to campaign. It’s churlish. Shut up, step down gracefully, and be remembered for your many good deeds rather than for being an inveterate whinger. Even Banksie is putting you to shame.
  • People, hope springing eternal, will be keen to call this a ‘swing to the left’ and similar; especially given wins by Brown and people like Main and Duynhoven, and Celia Wade-Brown’s strong performance. I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to support such an argument at present; at the very least, translating local body election results into central political partisan loyalty is something of a fool’s errand.
  • Christine Prentice got predictably thrashed by Tim Shadbolt in Invercargill. But rumours I’ve heard from down that way suggest the point wasn’t ever to win, but that the candidacy was a profile-raising exercise to enable Prentice to mount a credible campaign to replace sitting National MP for Invercargill Eric Roy when he retires. I’m not sure how much credence to give these rumours; given Roy’s 7,000-ish margin and the milk boom Southland is currently enjoying they could probably stand a dairy cow with a blue rosette and win.
  • Andrew Williams failed to even win a ward seat in the North Shore, which is a testament to his powers of self-delusion in standing for the Supercity Mayor. More frightening, though, is the fact that Cameron Slater, who entered the race late as a joke (probably conceived during a boozy lunch with DPF and Cactus Kate) got more than a thousand votes.Yikes. Watch out for him in 2013.
  • Phil Quin remarked that local body politics is a de-facto retirement scheme for former (Labour) MPs: Harry Duynhoven has won in New Plymouth; Martin Gallagher in Hamilton; Paul Swain in Upper Hutt, and George Hawkins in South Auckland are among those he mentions. Duynhoven’s beaten rival for the mayoralty, Pauline Lockett, complained on Radio New Zealand that he had ‘name recognition’ on his side. I expect that has an awful lot to do with it.
  • Daljit Singh didn’t get elected to the Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board. Thank goodness for that.

That’s all I’ve got. All in all, a pretty big day capping a pretty fierce election.

L

Hang ’em high

Labour Supercity candidate Daljit Singh, standing for election to the Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board, has been revealed as one of those charged with voting fraud-related offences. As Idiot/Savant says, it’s awful that this information didn’t come out earlier so that he could be punished electorally as well as judicially, but this is part of the price we pay for a robust justice system.

However, the fact that Singh has avoided his due scrutiny thus far (and, farcically, may yet be duly elected to the board) makes strict attention to his case all the more important, and places a heavier burden on those who are associated with him –and in particular on the Labour party whom he represents — to respond swiftly and decisively to divorce themselves from Singh and his alleged misdeeds. This must take cognisance of the fact that he has not yet been convicted of anything and it may be conditional and hypothetical, but if Labour have learned anything at all from the Taito Phillip Field scandal, it’s that a lesser test than ‘convicted in a criminal court’ must apply with regard to such matters.

In the interim Singh’s erstwhile allies must assess the evidence and base their response on judgements as to its veracity, but the moment his guilt is admitted or proven, they must be the first to call for his (figurative) hanging; because they stood to benefit from his fraud, they must condemn it all the more loudly. Singh and Labour’s enemies can be relied upon to do so; his allies must also. Andrew Little has initially done so, and this is heartening. IrishBill at The Standard, as an allied third party, has done likewise.

It is also perfectly legitimate to draw links between Singh and others’ alleged wrongdoing and Labour’s own fundamental standards and character, since candidates by definition represent the party. While one rotten apple does not (as many will certainly argue) imply a party of inveterate crooks, this latest incident on top of the Field affair, Labour’s steadfast support for Winston Peters through the Owen Glenn donation scandal, and continuing perverse behaviour by Chris Carter (I could list more examples) do certainly speak to crucial failures of judgement when it comes to the party’s selection and endorsement of both candidates and allies. If the rumoured pecadilloes of Richard Worth, the overt bigotry and criminal background of David Garrett, and the blundering damfoolishness of Melissa Lee (there are more examples here also) can be said to illustrate the character of the ACT and National parties (and I believe they can) then the same must surely hold true for Labour. Whatever speaks to character speaks to the heart and soul of a political movement, and by this standard Singh’s implication in voter fraud, if proven, will be a lifelong stain on the party which admitted and endorsed him.

And if anyone so much as breathes words like courageous corruption in apologia for Singh and whoever else, hoist them by the same rope. Democracy’s ends are only as good as the weakest part of its means.

L

Voting in the Dark Ages

The voting papers arrived at my house over the weekend and present something of a dilemma. One member of our household is in the UK for the election; he still, not unreasonably, wants to exercise his vote. After ringing the assistance number on my voting paper I was told that the only possible legal way for him to vote is for me to mail or courier his papers to him, then he should fill them out and mail them back.

It is, apparently, impossible to cast any sort of vote in local body elections using faxes, scans, emails, or any other new fangled contraption, or in fact any other means to allow overseas voting. In central government elections overseas voting is entirely permitted and supported.

New Zealand Post lists international mail as 3-10 working days, so it’s impossible to be sure he could actually vote if I did mail them to him. My cheapest option is “International Economy Courier” (2-6 working days) at $30 to get the papers to him, then he’d have to courier them back presumably at a similar cost.

So, three questions:

1) What would be wrong with allowing faxed, scan-and-emailed or election office supported overseas voting in local body elections?

2) Is it reasonable that voting in our local body elections should cost someone ~$60?

3) Doesn’t this provide a rather strong incentive for some illegal (but entirely ethical IMO) voting practices in households like mine?

Personal narrativium

From the NZ Herald, Why I should be the mayor:

Len Brown:

Every day I wake up and, for one thing, I’m thankful I do wake up. But secondly, I have the greatest job in the world and it’s a job that enables me to make a difference, to really change people’s lives, to deliver change, new direction and positive growth in the community. I can sort of perform little miracles around our place. When the change occurred I wondered whether I could shift this position to the community that has raised me since I was 7. I have very quickly found that passion. It has been an extraordinary journey thus far and the opportunity to deliver something by the way of step change and extraordinary redirection of Auckland and taking up of its potential, a marrying of our business dynamic with our community aroha and love is something I believe is an extraordinary opportunity, and I would like to take that opportunity.

John Banks:

At age 18, I decided that I would balance the family ledger by joining the police. The Auckland police told me in no uncertain terms that I was a lowlife son of two shitbags and there was no place for me in the New Zealand police. Twenty-five years later, I became the Minister of Police. I’m doing this to balance the family ledger.

So it’s “boundless enthusiasm for community miracles” squaring off against “individual crusade for redemption, nothing to do with Auckland” in the Supercity mayoral battle. If that’s all there was to it, Banksie would be a lost cause.

L

Bestest

Stuart Dye’s column which uses perfectly sound* logic to reach the conclusion that the All Whites are the world’s fifth-equal-best football team,** is a bit of fun. The only problem is that while reading it I kept getting flashbacks to the flimsiest rationalisations of the left’s 2008 election campaign. By careful selection and weighting of the criteria by which to judge the political field it was possible to argue — at times convincingly — that Labour and the Greens had it in the bag, and that’s what many people did instead of taking a long hard look at their team’s performance.

Ironically enough, I’m pretty sure those picking the criteria and making the rationalisations weren’t surprised in the slightest when their outcomes failed to eventuate.

Delusional partisan jingoism in a sport where we have a snowball’s chance: harmless. In politics: not so harmless.

L

* For unusual values of “perfectly” and “sound”.
** Above us are Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina — and by now Mexico and Nigeria Greece, which I suppose makes us seventh equal.

All’s fair, even when it’s unfair

As much as it pains me to say it — having long hoped against hope for the illusory Liberal Democrat rally which would see the Conservative party locked out of the British government for another five years — on reflection, I think the result of Thursday’s election in the UK was a reasonably fair one.

That’s a bizarre thing to say for a bunch of reasons, so let me explain. I don’t mean it’s fair in the sense that the views of the electorate were adequately reflected. Hundreds were turned away from polling stations or otherwise prevented from voting, but that pales into irrelevance compared to the fact that somewhere north of 40% of electors who did manage to cast their votes legitimately had no influence whatsoever on the makeup of the parliament. Spare a thought for the 15,903 Lib Dem voters of Camborne & Redruth, whose incumbent candidate lost by just 66 to the local Tory. It’s certainly not fair to the “Celtic fringe” and other minor parties whose candidates were excluded from the main electioneering set-pieces. I’m frequently on record saying that politics isn’t fair, and it isn’t — you don’t get out what you put in, there are no guarantees and sometimes the righteous are not rewarded nor the wicked punished. But from time to time, despite its unfairness, democratic politics does cast a thin, pale shadow of justice, and this is just such a time.

The Labour party betrayed the trust of its electorate in myriad ways. Most egregiously by blindly backing Bush rather than undertaking its own due diligence on the Iraq war; more insidiously by quickening the pace of Britain’s march toward a surveillance state; and most materially by claiming to represent the caring face of modern compassionate capitalism while permitting the barons of the banking industry to make out like bandits to everyone else’s cost. The handover from Blair to Brown was slickly managed but its slickness betokened a deep rot within: a reluctance inside the party to interrogate and dispute and disagree on crucial matters of policy and principle. The absence of any such critical engagement with the big issues of our time during a period when those issues were front-and-centre for the first time in a generation was clear in that nobody challenged Brown, even for show — and it was evident in Brown when he spoke to the electorate. He was a leader who had been given his place; he had not earned it, and it showed. New Labour was deservedly rejected for their performance over the past three terms, and I do not rue its loss greatly.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, were little more deserving. Cameron is unashamedly Blair-like, even describing himself as Blair’s heir. But although early in his leadership he has more characteristics of the later Blair, lacking much of the political verve which marked Blair’s inspirational early career. He is a self-declared moderate, which seems to mean he doesn’t really believe much of anything; he claims to be a “compassionate conservative” but speaks fondly of Thatcher. He derides parliamentary politics as a circus — which, to me, is an indicator of authoritarian managerialism, the preference to stitch up faits-accompli in smoke-filled rooms rather than submit ideas and policy programmes to the chaos of public dispute and scrutiny. For all that, he is an extremely intelligent and politically astute man; his former Oxford tutor speaking of him with surprisingly high regard during the BBC election broadcast. He is in some of these regards deeply reminiscent of our own Prime Minister. His party, however, do not seem to be of this standard; certainly not in terms of ability, and certainly not in terms of ideas. They struggled to keep pace with an ideologically bankrupt Labour party throughout the campaign and preceding term, no doubt just thanking their lucky stars that they were not having to make any of the hard decisions throughout the financial crisis. They were deservedly kept from securing government on their own, although they probably consider that they’ve been robbed, given how deeply loathed Brown and his Labour party are.

But the Liberal Democrats were robbed, although not so much as comparing their share of vote to their share of seats might suggest. They were much less to blame than either of the other two parties for abusing their expenses, and have proposed a much more thorough programme of economic and social reforms to present to an electorate clearly displeased with the tired and mediocre offerings of the mainstream. In a loose moral sense, they deserved more than they got from this election, not simply on the numbers but on the basis of their performance. But they were also the architects of their own misfortune to some extent. They unselfconsciously tried to drive a “sensible moderate” path between two parties whose electoral programmes were positively defined by stultifying sameness and a refusal to commit to anything which might make a blind bit of difference. There was too small a space between those two for anything to properly bloom. They targeted the young, immigrants, and the otherwise marginalised for votes — groups who might respond to polls, but never really turn out on election day. Clegg also played with best-of-both-worlds populism, and his “I agree with Nick” slogan is now being cruelly mocked — as it perhaps always would, given that not even the most generous projections had them winning more than an eighth of seats.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats hold an ace, and that is proportional representation. Now Labour, which has long had the political capital to implement a proportional system but has consistently chosen not to even consider it, declares itself in support of electoral reform. Blair, for all the great things he did in his first term, could potentially have saved his hapless successor’s — and his party’s — hides in this election by starting the PR reforms when he could act with impunity. I hope he regrets the decision not to. Even David Cameron, an avowed opponent of PR and representing a party with a deep, even tribal opposition to such measures, now claims to support “reform of the political system”, though — remaining true to form — he has been carefully circumspect on what he actually means by that. I reckon he means “make sure all the polling stations have enough ballot papers”, which is admittedly a good start. But PR is the only way to end the electoral corpulence of the two major parties; while they remain insulated from the challenges of lesser parties there will be no genuine improvement.

So the Liberal Democrats have to go for bust to get proportional representation, now. That, paradoxically, means supporting the Tories to the minimal extent necessary, in the classic sort of compromise that leaves neither party happy. (Though it does mean that the Lib Dems must rebuff as much of Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive” coalition deal as they can get away with.) For all that it seems, on paper, like a wonderful idea for the Liberal Democrats to give Labour the chance to build a coalition out of the the minor parties — everyone except Sinn Féin and the DUP would be needed — such a course of action would lead to proportional representation being robustly rejected by the British electorate. To stitch together all of these competing interests and Quixotic crusades into a cooperative which can agree on a seating plan, let alone draft constitutional reforms as important as devolution wast would require a bona fide political genius. Gordon Brown is not that genius, and nor is Nick Clegg. If such a person existed in Britain at present, he would probably be the leader of a very much more substantial majority in the House of Commons already. The inevitable, catastrophic failure of such a merry band of jokers would paint for the British people the worst possible picture of what proportional representation parliaments would look like, at the worst possible time, and would leave the Tories free to simply sit on the sidelines and shake their heads knowingly. For all that it’s a self-serving platitude to excuse a deeply undemocratic system, “strong, stable government” really is quite useful during times of such deep economic crisis. Not only would these events drive the electorate into the arms of the Conservative party (who would not even need to change their slogan), but it would sink any chances of PR being adopted for a generation or more. On the other hand, to force the Conservatives to permit even a discussion about PR could grant Labour a new lease on life. Once it’s cut away the extensive dead wood, the party would be in a strong position to stand against the nay-saying Tories trying — and likely failing — to limit their exposure to the public’s will and to make a decent fist of their time in government (in that order of priority).

Probably the most memorable quote for me from this election coverage was “the voters have spoken: we just don’t know what they’ve said”. Well, it seems to me that what they’ve said is “screw the lot of you”, with the perhaps unspoken exhortation to “sort your bloody act out”. I hope that’s the message received. That means the death of expressionless, gutless managerialism in politics, and it means a genuine engagement with the electorate on electoral reform. Neither can come soon enough.

L