Tag Archives: MMP

The hazards of MMP

David Cunliffe’s apparently-rash pledge to scrap the coat-tail rule that permits a party with less than 5% of the party vote to bring in additional MPs as long as it wins an electorate within 100 days turns out to not be quite so bold: it looks as if they simply intend to introduce Iain Lees-Galloway’s member’s bill — currently before Parliament — enacting (most of) the recommendations of the Electoral Commission as government legislation. That isn’t bad. It initially seemed as if he intended to ram through just this one cherry-picked rule under urgency, and some of us overreacted to it. There are still problems with the plan, but they are more complex.

Anyway, the episode throws light upon a lot of the tradeoffs and subtleties inherent in MMP — the major one of which is whether proportionality or equity in the distribution of proportionality is more crucial.

What MMP is good for
MMP is a rather ugly, instrumental system for balancing the expressed wishes of fickle and often arbitrary voters with regard to an volatile and rather shallow pool of political talent against the need for stability. It is not a means by which to determine moral merit, as trial-by-political-combat FPP claims to be, and nor is it a route to the mutually-least-bad choice, as in STV and related systems. It is what it is.

What it is not is an elegant expression of noble political aims. I guess this is why traditionalists dislike it viscerally: it feels kinda shabby, but it works.

“Rorts” and electorate-level match-fixing
So with that last point in mind, Danyl has said it best: the game is the game. Its job is not to look nice, it’s to deliver representative parliaments. I don’t much like it, but the utility of the kind of strategy in play in Epsom is obvious, so fair enough — as I said before the 2011 election, “If the electorate won’t punish them for doing so they’d be rude not to.”

Two things to add. The first is that the electorate clearly isn’t inclined to punish the ACT and UnitedFuture parties, at least not locally, because in the solitude of a cardboard booth, orange marker in hand, self-interest tends to overcome ethical compunctions. But the appeal to such compunctions is still the only way to reduce the viability of the “rorts”, so it is natural that those opposed will try to jawbone those compunctions. Patrick Gower is leading the charge here — although he, too, has been consistent in his derangement about this topic since before the 2011 election.

Second, the agreement between the Internet and Mana parties where Hone Harawira’s seat in Te Tai Tokerau will, they hope, bring in Internet party votes and list MPs is emphatically not of the same type as Epsom and ÅŒhariu, where major parties throw the electorate to exploit the coat-tail rule. Nobody is throwing anything in Te Tai Tokerau — in fact, it seems likely to be one of the most strongly-contested electorates in the country, a fact which is causing conniptions in some quarters. While the electoral outcome will look similar to the undiscerning eye, the Internet MANA deal is different — smaller parties allying to overcome structural barriers to their participation in democracy. Not only is it not only not a rort, it is perfectly just and rational behaviour in the face of an iniquitous system.

Consensus and timing of law changes
In general there should be consensus in changes to electoral law. But I agree with Rob Salmond that “should” is not the same as “must” — the object is to be sure that changes will be generally popular, and will be durable, and in this case an independent commission and the deep consultation that occurred during and after the referendum strongly suggests that implementing the recommendations via the Lees-Galloway bill will be both those things.

But timing matters: now that Internet MANA has declared its hand and chosen to take advantage of the coat-tail rule in a similar way as ACT and UnitedFuture, it would be unjust to change the rule immediately before the election. Depending on how things play, it might still be unjust to change the rule without further consultation after the election, because it may be that people see in the Internet MANA a new way to challenge the entrenched parties (I plan on writing more about this if I get time). For this reason it is good that John Key has ruled out supporting the Lees-Galloway bill.

Proportionality versus equity
All that having been said, I favour scrapping the coat-tail rule. Even though, as Graeme Edgeler has explained, it increases proportionality rather than decreasing it, mitigating the effect of the 5% threshold that kept New Zealand First, with 4.07% of the party vote, out of Parliament in 2008. The trouble is that it increases proportionality selectively rather than equitably — that is, among minor parties who are willing and able to become the vassals of larger parties — as Gower said in 2011 “It’s finally official: John Key owns the ACT Party.” Proportionality in an instrumental system is not an intrinsic good that automatically trumps other considerations. Process does matter. But outcomes matter too.

Political clientism in an instrumental system is not so much morally or ethically wrong as it tends to degrade representativeness, and delivers huge benefits to the strongest parties — who have the ability to burn political capital to take advantage of these sorts of relationships — in ways other parties cannot. So while you get the appearance of more diverse representation, the effect is more that the liege party gets to offload political risk and responsibility to its vassals. The clearest case of the present government is the charter school policy that, had National passed it of its own volition, would have endangered Key’s moderate reputation. ACT’s presence in parliament — even without deputy leader Catherine Isaac, who was outrageously granted the sinecure implementing the charter schools plan — gave the government cover to implement policy they wanted, but which was too politically risky.

Self-interest dressed as principle
So to an extent the proposal from Labour is sour-grapery from a political middle power that is neither big enough to be able to benefit from the coat-tail rule, nor small enough to potentially need it. For all their posturing about the integrity of the system, I am sure they would use it if they could get away with it (as they did in Coromandel in 1999), but they can’t. They have no potential clients, so they have no need for the coat-tail rule. The Greens, secure above the threshold, don’t need them for this, and they (correctly, in my view) regard Internet MANA as too radical for such a relationship. The retreat to electorate nostalgia is also strategic positioning from a party that has seen the resentment that exists towards list MPs, and has pledged to re-take the provinces and rebuild its electorate network.

National’s refusal to implement the findings of the commission also come clearly down to self-interest. They are so far the major beneficiaries of the coat-tail provisions, having used their two vassal parties to good effect through both terms of their government.

Ultimately while both the major parties’ positions are self-interested, Labour comes closest to the right conclusion: that the iniquity of the coat-tail rule’s additional proportionality is a greater cost than the additional representation gained by it is worth. The best cure for the problem is to cut the party vote threshold — to 1/120th of the party vote, or a “full seat”, which would obviate the coat-tail rule. Scrapping the coat-tail rule is a rather distant second-best outcome, but doing that as well as cutting the threshold to 4% as recommended by the commission seems like the sort of compromise with which nobody will be totally happy, but which will endure.

Because functionality is what matters, not perfection.


Threshold analysis of the preliminary results

One of the debates in the MMP review will be the thresholds, so here’s the effect on the preliminary results:


At a 1% or 2% threshold the Conservatives would have got three seats (two from National, one from Labour) giving their 55,070 voters a voice in Parliament. National + Conservatives would have held a bare outright majority of 121, add in United Future and ACT and they have 123 and a comfortable bloc without any reliance on the Māori Party.

With no threshold ALCP would have taken another seat off National. National + Conservatives would no longer have an outright majority, National + Conservative + UF + ACT would hold 122.

Obviously this is without the special votes, and ignore the fact that with a lower threshold more people may have been willing to vote Conservative or ALCP as their votes would not have been wasted.

115-125: Who’s at risk? Who might gain?

The Sainte-Laguë formula is used to allocate the 120 proportional seats in parliament. By calculating it out we can see which parties have only just got seats, and which have nearly got another one.

The full table is here: [download id=”4″] , and the edge case seats are:

  • 115 National
  • 116 Labour
  • 117 National
  • 118 National
  • 119 Labour
  • 120 National
  • ——
  • 121 NZ First
  • 122 National
  • 123 Greens
  • 124 Labour
  • 125 National

The summary is that if the specials are roughly similar to the on-the-night count then the most likely party to lose a seat is National, the most likely to gain is NZ First.

That said, the specials are different, some patterns are common as they’re most likely people out of electorate or only recently enrolled. Given the general wisdom that the Greens tend to do well with the specials then one could argue the most likely scenario is the Greens jumping from 123 to 120 and taking a seat off National.

Updated with the content of a comment I made over at The Standard:

If we ignore the whole Christchurch factor (which I am thinking will lead to unusual behaviour in the specials) it would be a pretty safe assumption that National will drop one seat after specials – they have the 120th quotient and a tradition of doing poorly at specials.

Christchurch gives me a headache – specials caused by Christchurch will have to be people still enrolled in Chch but living/voting somewhere else, or people still living in Chch but not in their own electorate. Are they more likely to be the more wealthy (the exodus is reportedly quite strong amongst more well-off professionals who can easily get a job somewhere else)? Or the poorer (given their suburbs were hit worst)?

My gut says that the well-off professionals most likely have a home elsewhere now, and did the mail redirection thing, so got moved to the roll in their new town. The poor are more likely camping out with friends and family, quite possibly within the wider region, so haven’t been moved to another roll yet. So I’m guessing that the effect of the Christchurch quakes will be to swing specials even more toward the left than usual.


Update: here’s the table for the finals: [download id=”5″]

Conservative Party of New Zealand

I’m 8/19ths conservative, according to Colin Craig’s Conservative Test, on the website of the Conservative Party of New Zealand that was launched today. This might come as a surprise to some readers, which is fair enough. The questions asked in the quiz are quite poorly-written, complex, contradictory, question-begging, and the colour-coding on the answers marks it out pretty clearly as a polemic exercise; but I simply answered them at face value. There was a brief but pretty worthwhile discussion on twitter about the meanings embedded in the questions, but I decided to just answer them naively: to pick a side based on gut response.

That said, I think I probably am more conservative than many of my liberal brethren. Although I disagree very strongly with old-fashioned (‘paleo’) conservatives on many, if not most, policy and philosophical topics, I generally find them easier to understand than either libertarians or neoconservatives, for one major reason: they still believe in society, and especially in its central role in civic and political life. I can have a reasoned debate with someone who accepts that there is such a thing as society — and that it has a meaningful role to play in government, and vice-versa. It’s much harder to do so with those who (like Thatcher) simply deny its existence, or those who (like Norquist) having grudgingly admitted that society is not simply a figment of the collective socialist imagination, would prefer to drown it in the bathtub.

Several years ago, Anita addressed the place of the Christian right in a progressive society, and her words are similarly applicable to conservatism in general:

Perhaps the role of the Christian Right is a necessary one; it does not prevent change but it slows it and makes sure there’s enough discussion that the more conservative members of our society don’t get left behind and alienated from a society that moves too quickly and doesn’t take the time to persuade them and bring them along.

While I campaign for more liberal and progressive progress, I’m not sure I would be willing to pay the price of a divided antagonistic society. Perhaps I should thank the Christian Right for slowing us down enough that we can move together as a community.

Anita’s argument is very dear to me. I want the sort of society I want, of course, but I don’t want a society where whoever holds 51% of the power at present can enact swift, revolutionary changes that alienate the other 49% — or at least that they cannot do so with impunity. This is at root a very conservative view, although not in the polemic sense of that word. So, although I disagree of most of what it stands for, inasmuch as New Zealand conservatives are presently served pretty poorly, I think a conservative party could be a useful addition to the political canon.

I expect Colin Craig’s endeavour will fail, however. His quiz, as noted, does not suggest that very deep philosophical or political consideration has been given to the issues at hand. His previous forays into politics have been reactionary and underwhelming, and so expensive as to be unsustainable even in the medium term. It’s way too close to the election to make a meaningful impact. Also suggesting a slapdash approach, the iconography and branding of the Conservative Party (based on its website) is terrible:

The blue they’ve chosen is a middling sort of shade, neither ACT’s teal or National’s royal blue, similar to the shade I criticised previously when used in anti-MMP ads by Peter Shirtcliffe. There’s no good reason not to have chosen a deep flag-coloured navy blue here. The typefaces, far from being the solid, dependable sort we expect, are incongruous — one is cartoonish, the other is frightfully modern. If there was ever a decent time to deploy a newspaper font, this was surely it. In this regard, however, the effort isn’t quite as bad as Reform NZ, whose designers, in their wisdom, chose a font very similar to that used by LOLcat images. Even his New Zealand flag is cartoonish — the opposite of the dignified, patriotic image they should be pitching for. They could have done a lot worse than emulating the masthead of Trevor Loudon’s old blog, which was one of the most striking in NZ — though now replaced by a dull white banner (the image at right salvaged from google image thumbnails).

There is also the perverse ideological incentive noted by Cactus Kate, that he seeks to disrupt ACT’s success in Epsom and thereby puts at risk the re-election of the Key government; if this happens, Labour’s proposed capital gains tax will likely be enacted, which would substantially disadvantage both himself personally (as a property investor) and many of his voters.

But in the final analysis, the biggest obstacle to the Conservative Party’s success is conservatism itself. By definition, conservative voters are reluctant to switch their support from one political vehicle to another. They require very good reasons to switch, and there is nothing to indicate that the Conservative Party will provide them.


Competing electoral insurgencies, in Epsom and beyond

In this post I argue that ACT’s apparent willingness to undermine the MMP system that has kept them alive isn’t so much a death wish as a wish to be welcomed back into the National party as a faction, rather than a stand-alone party; to ensure influence from within rather than relying on influence without. I wrote most of this late at night and cobbled it together from several pieces I’ve had banging around a while with some more recent stuff appended, so you have my apologies if it’s a bit disjointed.

Fairfax political journalists Andrea Vance & John Hartevelt have a pretty sharp piece up, calling the ACT-National deal in Epsom a shameless power grab. I wrote about this topic a few days ago. Their analysis is pretty good, particularly the argument that National may have difficulty compartmentalising future ACT scandals away from National, having taken such direct responsibility for shielding ACT from the rigours of electoral democracy. They also make the point that I and many others have made about the dual exploitation-illustration of MMP’s flaws:

Double dealing and horse-trading are nothing new in the battle for political survival. Perversely, as we head towards a referendum, this naked and shameless power grab undermines the very system ACT relies on for survival. The ultimate irony is that Brash wants it replaced with the supplementary member system that would probably vanquish his party.

MMP, and particularly exploitation of the free-rider rule, is what has kept ACT alive since the 2005 election, when the party’s support dipped to its record low of 1.5%. Supplementary Member is the system that Brash personally supports, and although there is no official preference, this is widely regarded as being the system most preferable to most National party members and the wider ACT party also. SM, as proposed with a 90-30 electorate-list split, would indeed be worse for ACT as an independent party, requiring it to get something like 3% 2% of the party vote to gain a list seat, even if it continued to win an electorate. Leaving aside for a moment whether this is likely or not (ACT did, in its heyday, poll well), that’s a considerable disadvantage because National would no longer have such a good reason to throw ACT an electorate seat lifeline. National’s doing so is apparently only tolerated by Epsom voters on the basis of the overall positive-sum value proposition made by John Banks: “vote for me, and I’ll bring five MPs with me on current polling”. You’d be a fool to turn that offer down. Reduce the premium to one MP and it suddenly becomes rather less appealing.

So on paper ACT supporting a non-MMP system looks like a turkey voting for an early Christmas. But I think the game goes deeper than that. ACT has in recent years abandoned its claims to being a classical liberal party, and is now basically a more hardline version of National’s dry petit-authoritarian conservatism, with a few casual nods to “freedom”, such as in alcohol policy. In recent months it has been colonised by the former right of the National party (Brash and Banks, most notably; also “National in Gumboots” Federated Farmers former president Don Nicolson). Both the former were until very recently long-standing National members whose tribal loyalty undoubtedly lies with that party. They see it as having strayed from its roots, and while they undoubtedly appreciate its newfound popularity with voters, they have repeatedly expressed strong concerns that the party has lost its way, and an intention to bring it back around by putting “reinforcing steel” into its governments (in the words of John Banks). Both, I think, would join National again in a heartbeat if National would have them, and would permit them any influence. An electoral system switch to SM makes that a more viable possibility, and brazenly exploiting both the two major flaws to which most people object in MMP — the threshold free-rider rule and the “back door” rule that lets a rejected candidate such as Don Brash back in on the list — sets up a reasonably strong case against MMP.

Supplementary Member has the worst features of both FPP and MMP. It has high noise (the variance between the makeup of the electorate’s votes and the makeup of the resultant parliament), delivers huge incumbency advantages to parties that hold many electorate seats (because there are more of them), severely marginalises smaller parties by reducing proportionality, and despite all this does not meaningfully solve the symbolic split between “legitimate” electorate-based MPs and those who ‘only’ come in on the list, nor the threshold, “back door” or “horse-trading” objections that most critics name as MMP’s worst flaws. (BK Drinkwater modeled FPP, MMP and SM against each other using election data since 1996, although bear in mind that for SM, these figures assume a 70-50 electorate-list split, which is considerably more proportionate than the 90-30 proposed).

National holds many more electorate seats than Labour, and has nearly always done so, even when its popular vote has been lower because its base of support is less concentrated in inner-city and suburban electorates. Any system of reapportioning electorates on the basis of population will continue to entrench this advantage. Under MMP, it is not a very significant advantage; under FPP and SM, however, it is. ACT’s electoral support, both in electorates and nationally, is very weak, largely because their policies are purposefully divisive, with the intent of galvanising a small proportion of “right thinking” voters against the mainstream. National’s strategy since 2006 has been to occupy the centre-ground and cannibalise Labour’s votes in a zero-sum fashion. This has been a strategy of necessity — the 2005 election demonstrated pretty categorically that divisive politics, no matter how much money you could throw at it, no matter how favourable the cultural terrain, or how good the propaganda, was not a winner for National in an MMP environment. The incumbency and electorate edvantage delivered by SM, however, would cushion them against voter discontent and permit a more hardline approach: one that included ACT as a faction within the National party, as it previously was. So under SM, ACT doesn’t need National to throw it a bone, and National doesn’t need to rort the system to extract electoral advantage: National under SM will enjoy sufficient advantage to simply absorb ACT and its policy programme, and its governments will be emboldened to enact divisive or unpopular aspects of that programme without the same fear of electoral blowback that now constrains it. ACT’s strategy is therefore an insurgency against National; one that may be permitted by National, contingent upon the adoption of a more beneficial electoral system.

A further comment on Labour’s response in Epsom is also warranted. Arthur (in comments to my post linked above) suggested that the best way to nix ACT in the 2011 election is for all Labour and Green voters to cast electorate votes for the National candidate, Paul Goldsmith, in the hope that this will send a signal to National voters who are unhappy with the horse-trading between ACT and National that it might be worth defecting. This is, in principle, a strong strategy, and it has been picked up by some Green supporters as well. But I think it’s the wrong strategy in this case, for five reasons. First, it’s a complex and counterintuitive strategy, and it’s extremely hard to get so many people (on both sides) to act against their own instincts like that. Second, the value proposition made by ACT (six for the price of one) is simply too good for a meaningful number of National voters to pass up. Third, it would require Labour to publicly endorse a National candidate, which would permit John Key to proclaim that “even the opposition supports the National party”. Fourth, the electorate demographics for Epsom don’t stack up: this electorate bleeds blue and even if a fair proportion of disgruntled Nat voters defected, I don’t think there would be enough Green and Labour voters to prevail. Fifth, it would require Labour to buy into the electoral-system rorting, making them no better than the National and ACT parties.

Labour looks like it will mount an ‘economic dry’ insurgency by standing David Parker in Epsom. This is a better strategy because it is vulnerable only to the objections two and four above (the positive-sum value proposition, and demographics). These will probably still mean that it is unsuccessful in terms of winning Labour the electorate and denying ACT parliamentary representation, but it also has the advantages of fighting the national and ACT parties on their own turf — economic responsibility — and in demonstrating that even when they’re down, Labour fights fair and respects the integrity of the electoral system. Most crucially, however, whatever strategy is adopted by the left in Epsom must be coordinated. The two proposed strategies (vote Goldsmith and vote Parker) are contradictory: one must be abandoned, and soon, in favour of the other. Because if the Green faction goes into Epsom with one strategy and the Labour faction goes in with another, there’s only one winner: ACT.


Rotten borough

This evening Paul Goldsmith won the Epsom candidacy for the National party. Goldsmith is was until 2010 a Citizens & Ratepayers Auckland city councillor, and has a long-standing National party affiliation.

He will be standing against ACT candidate John Banks, who is the subject of a hagiography by Goldsmith titled “John Banks: A Biography” and published a few years before Banks stood for his first term as Auckland mayor, which he won in 2001.

ACT is led by Don Brash, who is the subject of a similar tome — I haven’t read this one, so I will refrain from calling it a hagiography in such specific terms — titled “Brash: A Biography”, also by Goldsmith and published as Brash was whipping up race hatred as leader of the National party in order to win the 2005 general election, which he did not.

So unless someone can explain to me again how National is going to contest Epsom strongly by standing the hagiographer against his subjects, this is simply a renewal of the Hide-Worth electoral rort, where a nod and a wink permits National to elect Banks and exploit the free-rider loophole in MMP; all the while campaigning against MMP due to flaws such as the free-rider rule, and the ‘back door’ rule which will in all likelihood get Don Brash back into parliament despite his having been rejected in 2005 — not only by an electorate, but by the whole nation as leader of a failed National party bid for government.

And fair play to them. If the electorate won’t punish them for doing so they’d be rude not to.



Danyl Mclauchlan posits a conspiracy theory:

there is a pretty great opportunity to use the Maori seats to rort the system: if you had two Maori Parties, one that ran electoral candidates in six out of the seven electorates and only canvased for electorate votes, and another that had a safe seat in the seventh electorate and only canvased for party list votes in the other regions then you could, conceivably, end up with a dozen MPs (albeit with some overhang due to your electorate imbalance) and hold the balance of power in perpetuity.

Danyl’s scheme is essentially what the Greens tentatively proposed before the last election: green voters in Māori electorates consider casting electorate votes for the māori party candidate, and māori party voters cast their party vote for the Greens. The proposal was rejected by the māori party, which at the time was (in my view) a tactical error but a wise strategic choice.

It was a tactical error because of the efficiency argument (a positive-sum alliance permitting the two parties to extract more parliamentary representation from the same base of electoral support). But without the benefit of hindsight it was a good strategic move because the māori party’s whole point was not to be shackled to the ‘Pākehā’ parties, and its long-term survival still likely depends on its establishing its own persistent powerbase; one which could stand a chance of surviving even the abolition of the Māori seats. The only way to do that is to grow the party vote by strengthening ‘brand’ support among its electorate. (Also the proposal was made quite late in the campaign, and the potential for voter confusion was high.)

Those factors which made the plan a strong strategic risk for the māori party in 2008 now no longer obtain, or at least not so strongly. It has largely sacrificed its independence from the Pākehā political mainstream anyway, and could potentially lose considerable support for that reason. It may hang onto electorates, but it is likely that ‘brand’ support is lower than before. So with the benefit of hingsight, they might as well have gone with the Greens last time. Nowadays, they have a radical wing-man in Hone, who will work with them and who shares, despite all the rhetorical ructions, considerable common ground with the party’s other members and its foundational kaupapa. They can work together; Hone working to attract the ‘brand’ support for an independent indigenous party, the existing māori party maintaining their electorate positions and continuing to work within the mainstream.

I’m not convinced this will happen — as the Richards say in comments to Danyl’s post, a lot of it is personality-bound — but it could work in principle.

There’s one other factor, though. Although ACT and National have been collaborating in this way since Rodney Hide was gifted Epsom, the moment the māori party and a new radical wing led by Hone start doing it, the headline will be “Maaries rorting democracy to establish an apartheid state”. Those who’ve been benefiting from this sort of positive-sum electoral coordination for years will be those most urgently banging that drum and waving those banners. That’s a powerful disincentive.

Edit to add: Of course, there’s also a referendum on MMP on the day of the election. A scheme such as this would be an outstanding means of undermining MMP’s popular support and endangering its future.


MMP in NZ is really safe

As I’ve said before, Peter Shirtcliffe’s campaign to scupper MMP (again) is probably a blessing in disguise for the electoral status quo in New Zealand. If any further evidence were required, the following should suffice for now:

The speech bubbles are blank because Peter is running a caption competition to find a punchline. Demonstrating piercing insight into his relevance to NZ politics, he has chosen the Kiwiblog Right for these words of inspiration. Personally, I think that leaving them blank perfectly captures the character of this campaign: inchoate, futile, tone-deaf irrelevance.

Hopefully he won’t be too disheartened by the far-from-enthusiastic response of Farrar’s captive authoritarians.


MMP in NZ is safe

shirtcliffe ad

  • It has been found to work pretty well and all parliamentary parties except ACT support it.
  • The UK election is about to remind people how perverse FPP is.
  • Peter Shirtcliffe is spamming people in order to gain support for his anti-MMP campaign.
  • His google ad campaign looks like this ====>

Seriously. That’s him. A ranting white middle-aged elderly patrician of the sort New Zealand’s governments were almost exclusively composed before the change in electoral system — and on a soap-box, for goodness’ sake. A starker warning of what’s in store should the electoral system change is hard to envisage. Also: it’s visually busy and garish. The blue is neither National-party royal blue, nor ACT-party aqua-blue, nor flag-Navy; it’s nothing. The message is over-long and confused (campaign for an effective referendum? Don’t you mean to campaign against the electoral system? No? Ok then.) And the cartoon …

Thanks, Peter, you’re doing your country a great service.

(Thanks to Lyndon Hood in the comments to Russell’s thread linked above for the pic.)

[This line inserted to fill whitespace].


Great prospects

Hat tipped to Paul McBeth for this one.

As one side engages in some tentative but hugely premature triumphalism, and the other side points the accusatory finger, a sleeping giant awakes. This man — our Nixon, in whom we apparently see ourselves as we really are — has rekindled the fire which once consumed the hearts and minds of the nation (and the knickers of untold women old enough to know better) and thrown himself with renewed fervour into the task of “getting his old job back”.

Thanks either to wicked humour or outright shamelessness on the part of Auckland University political science staff, Winston Peters has been granted the unlikeliest of springboards to launch his 2010 campaign to return to the Beehive in 2011: a lecture to (presumably first year) political science students on the MMP political system. Of course, if they’d wanted a serious lecture on the topic, any number of graduate (and even some of the more geeky undergraduate) students could have done it, but the choice of Winnie was inspired because, instead of just telling these young things the dry facts and functions of the system — let’s face it, they can learn that from a book or even wikipedia.* But here’s a chance for them to learn how the system works in actual fact, from someone who has used it to screw others and been screwed himself, and to learn all that from someone who, just coincidentally, is in a position to demonstrate that no matter how down and out a politician might seem, under MMP he’s only one voter in twenty away from the marble floors, dark wood and green leather benches which house our democratic institutions.

The speech itself is the saga of the heroic battlers who guided the noble, fragile MMP system through the minefields of bureaucracy, persevering despite the “inner cabal cherishing hidden agendas” intent upon bringing about its premature demise. Those heroic battlers were represented by New Zealand First, epitomising the “traditional values of New Zealand politics”; “capitalism with a kind, responsible face”; the “long established social contract of caring for the young and the old and those who were down on their luck through no fault of their own”; a strong, honest party which was forced into coalition with National, although even then the dirty hacks in the media failed to correctly report these facts.

It’s a wonderful story, a fabulous creation myth, and if you’ve listened to Winston’s speeches over the years, none of it will be foreign to you.

But the speech dwells upon the darker, more recent history of MMP, and particularly its perversion by the forces of separatism. This initially seems odd for a speech which praises MMP, but it makes perfect sense when you consider the wider narrative: you can’t rescue something which isn’t in trouble, and the wider narrative is, naturally enough, that Winston is here to rescue New Zealand from MMP and the separatists — blue and brown — who have overtaken it. This is done, in true Winstonian style, with a masterful play on words:

You’ve all heard or seen the British comedy TV show “the two Ronnies” – well we have our own comedy show starring the “two Hones”. Hone, of course, is Maori for John – and the two “Hones” don’t give a “Heke” about who they insult on Waitangi Day.

If you listen closely, you might almost be able to hear the sound of undergraduates giggling nervously, and more quietly but present nevertheless, the sound of confused and frustrated battlers who don’t see what they stand to gain out of any of the current political orthodoxy starting to think “you know, Winston wasn’t so bad after all.”

So, Winston is back. For the record, I still don’t think he’s got the winnings of an election in him without the endorsement of an existing player, and I think it’s better than even money that he would drag any endorser down with him. His credibility is shot to hell, and this is a naked attempt to reach out to a Labour party who have just begun to put a little historical distance between themselves and him, but it will be very tempting for a Labour party struggling to connect with the electorate. If we as a nation are very, very unfortunate, Labour’s failure to reinvent themselves and the illusory success among some of the usual suspects of the “blue collars, red necks” experiment last year — notably not repeated in this week’s speech — will cause them to reach out for the one thing they lack: a political leader who understands narrative, who possesses emotional intelligence and political cunning in spades, who knows how to let an audience know who he is and what he stands for, and make them trust him (sometimes despite all the facts), and who has a ready-made constituency of disgruntled battlers who feel (rightly or wrongly) that the system doesn’t work for them.

Please, let it not come to that.


* Incidentally, it may come as a surprise to some of you that these dry facts and procedural details were the reason I dropped out of PoliSci in my first year, and studied Film instead (before realising that it all came back to politics anyway).