Tag Archives: Lynn Prentice

Like a fox?

Lynn at The Standard has a nothing to see here sort of post about how the Darren Hughes scandal isn’t important. True to form, he misses the fact that that the ‘Labour footsoldiers’ for whom he claims the scandal is an irrelevant distraction are the least-important players in this particular game. What matters is the public, and in that regard the views of the media and the ‘beltway creatures’ matter plenty. So while he might be right that it’s a beat-up and there’s nothing in it, that doesn’t really matter — if Labour treats this as a matter of ‘business as usual’ the results will be deservedly catastrophic.

But one thing which struck me while watching the news coverage of the Dunedin stand-ups before and after the front bench meeting today: he looks happy and confident and genuinely at ease; even effusive. As some wag on twitter said: “Phil, leave some kool-aid for the rest of the caucus!” Looks like he did, because the front bench response of solidarity also looks like it’s for real. If you watch it with the sound off, it’s the very model of a party holding a unified front.

The trouble is that what Goff is saying — that his leadership is stronger now than it was before the Hughes scandal broke — is totally barking mad. It simply doesn’t make any actual logical sense that it would be, that it could be. My instinct is that the fact the caucus and the advisers are letting him bark in this way indicates an utter dereliction of duty on the part of the advisers, and a complete lack of political nerve and sense on the part of the caucus. But, as I argued the other day, as bad as Labour is, I don’t think they’re that far gone. So maybe there’s an explanation other than mass political psychosis: maybe he’s banking on this strategy being just barking mad enough to work. This response, for all its other failings, does hint at the Machiavellian characteristic of virtù which I/S (I believe correctly) diagnosed as lacking in Phil Goff’s leadership. It is nothing if not audacious. It is certainly not a ‘business as usual’ response.

So maybe he’s hoping to catch the government on the hop by simply pretending his situation isn’t as dire as it is and hoping that the pretence is infectious. Perhaps it’s actually not pretence; perhaps he really does have that support. Perhaps he’s relying on people ignoring the waffly words and inept deeds and simply taking their cues from the appearance of functionality which Labour is trying to present.

This might not be as far-fetched as it sounds: Lynn does make a good point that people don’t pay close attention to the details; and it’s an old trick to watch political TV appearances with the sound off to get a feel for how a naïve viewer might perceive it and to look more closely at the underlying messages about the political actors and organisations which appear in them.* This sort of presentation of functionality is also a pretty good indicator of eventual success: Drew Westen documents cases where random voters could predict with reasonable accuracy the outcomes of political contests by watching brief segments of silent footage and simply observing the political actors’ nonverbal cues.**

So are they crazy like a fox? Yeah, nah, I don’t really believe it either. The hell I know. Good luck to Phil, and all of them, because they’re going to need it.

So, setting aside the conventional wisdom that Labour is just marching into an electoral abyss, what are your theories as to what they’re up to at present? Wackier the better.


* There’s a bit of this sort of analysis done on US political events, such as Sarah Palin’s blood libel speech — see here for example. Though not really the same thing, it’s also worth you googling “breath libel”. Scary.
** I’ve lent my copy of The Political Brain to someone, so I can’t substantiate this at the moment, sorry.

Insensitive … now wait for the “hypersensitive”

Commenter Alexandra at The Standard picked up on a report by Radio NZ that John Key joked about TÅ«hoe as cannibals:

“The good news is that I was having dinner with Ngati Porou as opposed to their neighbouring iwi, which is Tuhoe, in which case I would have been dinner,” [Key] said, “which wouldn’t have been quite so attractive.”

Now, a reference to cannibalism in any leader’s speech is bad enough, but joking about it in the context of the government’s betrayal of TÅ«hoe, and Key’s failed attempt to speak for the māori party regarding that betrayal would be absurd if it wasn’t so insulting. Not only that, but the reference to Ngāti Porou was all the worse, given the complex history of those two iwi, which was also in the news recently but of which Key appears to have no awareness.

Two main questions occur to me: first was this a calculated move to distance himself and the government from the sense he has “gone native”, or just an idiotic off-the-cuff remark? (Essentially: bad will, or just incompetence?) And second, what will it take to prevent the māori party from walking away? As Marty Mars says, this is a significant matter of the mana of TÅ«hoe, and the mana of Māori in general. It cannot just be left to lie: either the māori party walks away, or some sort of meaningful reparation — you might call it “mana enhancement” — must be offered by the government, not only to TÅ«hoe and the party, but to Māori in general. The māori party are in a tough spot; as I argued yesterday, Māori don’t have the luxury of just throwing their toys whenever they don’t get their way. But something has got to give.

Oh, and as per Pākehā Standard Operating Procedure on issues like this, wait for the Māori response to be declared hypersensitive.

Update: Same being asked by Lynn at The Standard.

Update (20:25) Much has become clear since I wrote the post. Some updated thoughts follow.

First, it’s clear that this wasn’t an inadvertent, casual comment — it was, if not a planned and sanctioned statement then clearly a calculated one intended, after apparently growing discord at the Lower North Island National party conference this weekend past, to win Key and the government back some of its reputation for driving a hard bargain with Māori, and for not being a PC pounamu-wearing hand-wringer. So the initial diagnosis is “bad will” rather than “incompetence”. This was a simple continuation of the negotiative process which Key chose to stall by unilaterally ruling out the return of Te Urewera National Park; Key providing an opening for TÅ«hoe to continue dialogue, or not.

Second, it’s pretty well-calculated. It would have been easy for TÅ«hoe (and others) to publicly overreact and confirm Pākehā New Zealand’s worst instincts about them. It would also have been easy for the māori party to walk away from the coalition deal, and I do think this is another factor in favour of that course of action. But they haven’t done so. Tamati Kruger’s response that the joke was “not funny, in poor taste and unbecoming of a prime minister” is pretty strongly-worded but shows its own sort of gallows-humour, indicating that Kruger (seasoned negotiator that he is) understands the game being played, and is prepared to continue playing it, given some caveats. Having today said that Key had lost his nerve Kruger has held his. He was magnanimous and humorous when speaking to John Tamihere and Willie Jackson about the topic on RadioLIVE this afternoon, but pretty clear that the deal is still to be closed, and it will now take some closing.

Third, Key has publicly insulted both TÅ«hoe and the māori party in the past week, and this does still need to be addressed. All parties seem to have chosen to address it around their respective negotiating tables, rather than in public, but behind closed doors these people will be furious at having been so treated, and for all that they’ve gained ground with the redneck street, that’s ground National will need to make up inside the wharenui. To put it in terms Key, as a former currency trader who worked a lot in Asia, would understand: the price of doing business just went up. And it went up quite a lot, because failure to accede to that increase means TÅ«hoe can now justifiably walk away from negotiations which are already almost two years underway, claiming that the negotiating team has no legitimacy, having been unilaterally overruled by their own prime minister, apparently just because he changed his minds. If they do that, expect every other current negotiation to go the same way. That’s an unacceptable political cost for Key before the next election, let alone the one after (by which all outstanding claims are supposed to be settled).

Fourth, a public sense is beginning to build of Key as the one who is endangering the relationship, after the opposite sense developed around Hone Harawira’s comments last year. If the coalition between National and the māori party fails, it will be seen as his failure to manage the relationship adequately, and that damages his own master narrative of being an efficient political manager and an all-round nice guy. As marty mars said in another comment on The Standard, the concessions granted to Māori by Key’s government are “barbed” — they can’t be revoked or withdrawn without sustaining substantial political damage, which means that if the māori party sees genuinely irreconcilable differences and an opportunity to dissolve the agreement without being seen as unreasonable, they are able to do so. But as Neil says in the comment thread below, and as I’ve been arguing to little avail for ages, the māori party’s best play vis-a-vis either major party is the threat to go with the other. Labour partisans and much of the wider left wish it were not so, but if Labour get a sense that they have a monopoly on the māori party’s attentions again, then further concessions will be rare and threadbare.

Fifth, the KBR response is just what you’d expect, complete with gratuitous references to the alleged taste of human flesh, and ginga jokes. Sigh.

Thanks for the discussion so far. Responses to other comments below.


On blog conduct

Or, this is not a democracy, it’s a private residence, get used to it. But we need you, and you apparently need us, so let’s do what we can to get along.

Weblogs and online discussion forums are a type of feedback media, where the published content forms the opening chapter, not the entire story. In feedback media, there are broadly two groups of participants, who I’ll term proprietors and contributors; the former being those who operate the medium and provide its `official’ content, the latter those who participate in the medium by adding their own content. The nature of the relationship between these two groups is critical in determining how the medium functions. This post is a quick examination of how feedback media operate at a theoretical level, a survey of examples, and a rationale for dual-mode gatekeeping, with a view to creating an environment conducive to quality discourse which is largely free of personal feuds and partisan point-scoring.

The Dump Button
Though there are others, the canonical mainstream feedback media are the letters-to-the-editor page and talk radio. In either of those media, a proprietor has the unilateral ability to prevent or limit contributors’ participation – in the case of the newspaper editor, the mechanism is `points noted’; radio hosts have a button with which they can drop a caller between when she starts speaking and when she goes to air – traditionally, this timeframe is seven seconds. Blog proprietors have a range of similar devices at their disposal.

This has important implications when viewed in the light of one of the fundamental pieces of media theory – Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model, which argues that a given text is encoded with meaning by its creator, and that meaning is decoded by the person reading it, who can accept, partially accept or wholly reject the encoder’s frame of reference (not the content; that’s a different matter with which Hall was not largely concerned). In principle, the presence of gatekeeping mechanisms such as those described above means it’s virtually impossible to have a statement published which the proprietor doesn’t want to be there. The logical flipside of this is: if your comment gets published, it’s because the proprietor wants it to be published, and for their own reasons.

Proprietors of feedback media generally have plenty of reasons for wanting to allow content to be published, the primary one of which is the symbiotic relationship they have with contributors. The nature of the content and the nature of the gatekeeping are the two primary factors which determine the tone of a medium; the former largely because of the contributors it attracts and the latter largely because of the contributors it drives away. When Lindsay Perigo took over from John Banks on his Radio Pacific talk show, many regular callers kept calling because the political content Perigo aired was quite similar. Banks was extremely tolerant of callers who took a while to get to the point – he rarely, if ever, cut people off, and he had a great deal of time for listening to peoples’ stories. Perigo was the opposite; he guided the show much more firmly and did not generally tolerate callers chatting about trivial or mundane matters, and that changed his audience and his contributors. Banks’ loyal callers became quite displeased when Perigo, for instance, dedicated an entire hour of his show to the songs of Mario Lanza, of whom they’d never heard, and became irate when he lost his temper with some of the more elderly callers and began to cut them off for not sticking to the programme or saying anything he considered meaningful. Gradually, the old callers stopped calling and were replaced by a new set: younger, less religious, sharper of tongue, etc.

Gatekeeping Models
Plenty of different gatekeeping models exist in practice. I’ll focus on four which are fairly archetypal. Each creates a different atmosphere.
1. Slashdot. The lunatic asylum model. Members control almost everything. This results in a community which is extremely tolerant of insults, memes, tomfoolery, and has an incredibly low signal to noise ratio.
2. Kiwiblog. The echo chamber model. Content is published by DPF, commented upon by members, who use a karma system and are subject to a demerit system (operated by DPF) which is more theoretical than anything. This results in a sort of groupthink; not because DPF enforces it, but because he allows his commentariat to do so, creating a recursive loop of abuse which deters dissenters from participating. There is an argument that DPF (who’s a thoroughly decent bloke, quite unlike his comment threads) keeps his blog this way in order to make himself look sensible and reasonable by comparison.
3. No Right Turn. The Holy Sepulchre model. Content is published by Idiot/Savant, and that’s what you get. Idiot/Savant took the opposite line to DPF and turned off comments altogether a good long while ago. The result is almost pure signal, very little noise. I/S is frequently referred to by and comments on other blogs to maintain the feedback aspect of his medium.
4. The Standard. The noisy tavern model. Content is posted and comments are moderated by a group of writers, and Lynn Prentice, who tolerates very little of the sort of abuse for which KB is known. In general this results in a more congenial atmosphere, with a wide range of dissenting voices who are usually treated with at least a modicum of respect. However, it still gets pretty heated because there is no clear delineation between content and conveyance.

The Living Room Model
Anita’s model for Kiwipolitico is of a living room in which robust and complex but civil and reasoned discussions take place. This implies rights and responsibilities, and although I’ve only recently moved in (as it were) I shall presume to list a few as I see them. These apply equally to proprietors and to contributors.

* You have a right to be treated as an honourable contributor and to be free from serious personal attacks, abuse or character assassination.
* You have a right to not have your personal or professional life dragged into a discussion unless you allow it, or it is somehow germane to a legitimate matter of debate.
* You have a responsibility to defend and substantiate your arguments and assertions, not to assume that because people here are civil you can get away with a weak argument or unproven claims.
* You have a responsibility to adhere to and enforce these standards of conduct to the extent you are able.

Sir Karl Popper (and others) argued that if a society is perfectly tolerant of any and all behaviour, it must tolerate behaviour which is destructive of toleration itself, eventually leading to a general absence of toleration. This is pretty clearly evident in the Slashdot and Kiwiblog examples above and to a lesser extent in The Standard example, where because of a greater or lesser lack of discipline, much worthwhile discussion is simply drowned out, and the signal to noise ratio drops. The problem is usually not with the arguments, which can be well-reasoned and supported; it is the attacks and epithets which accompany those arguments which deters dissent. Therefore, in order to privilege argument over attacks, the content to be argued and the means by which it is argued need to be treated separately. The living room model requires that there be little or no gatekeeping of argument itself, coupled with strict gatekeeping of the means by which that argument is conveyed – essentially: make what points you choose, but do so in good faith and in accordance with decent norms of conduct and reasoned debate.

The point and purpose of the model is to separate arguer and argument for the purpose of criticism. You should be vulnerable to critique only on the grounds of your arguments, your ideas, or your conduct. Good ideas and arguments, cleanly made and supported by evidence and logic, will thrive here regardless of their ideological bent, but arguments resorting to personal attacks, abuse, absurd hyperbole, rash generalisation or wilful misinterpretation to make a point will perish whether we agree with their premises or not, because these are the signs of a hollow argument which lacks a valid foundation. While you will be sheltered from personal attacks, don’t expect your argument to be sheltered or defended by the proprietors; indeed, we may take great glee in watching it be torn asunder, as long as the tearing is done in a civil, justified and reasoned fashion. Finally, toleration breeds toleration. If you consistently exhibit good character and careful arguments, occasional minor indiscretions may be overlooked. This is a privilege to be earned, and I hope everyone will earn it.