Friday, 19 September 2014

Election rant (this is how I write when I have a time limit)

My plan, you see, was to finish the previous post within the week and then run a short series of posts on election issues coming up to polling day. But no, somehow I just couldn’t either marshal my thoughts in a timely fashion, nor give up on it and leave it as a draft and write other stuff in the meantime. Note to self: that is how you maintain a blogging schedule, it isn’t going to work otherwise. Now polling day is tomorrow. And by law you can’t publish anything between midnight and 7pm on polling day that might influence someone’s vote. So I have to get this finished in the next seven hours. And you all get to see how I write when I haven’t got time to go back and edit.
As usual I have to be conscious that a lot of my readers are not New Zealanders. Recently I seem to have been oddly popular in Turkey, and a while back it was the Ukraine. So I guess I have to tell you about all the parties as well. I could link you to them, but frankly that seems like more work than just writing, especially because whenever I wander away from this editor page to look something up it takes me ten minutes to get back. I should perhaps mention that I am a little bit medicated right now as well. Actually, no, first I have to explain New Zealand’s electoral system, for New Zealanders as well as non-New Zealanders, as you’ll see.
Back in the days of First Past the Post National and Labour were the only realistic options going. Back then we voted the way I think Americans still do, that is, we cast a single vote each for the local electorate candidate, and the government was whichever party had a majority of the seats in Parliament. Now imagine what happens if you have a lot of electorates with a small preference for National, and one or two electorates with an overwhelming preference for Labour, and you can see why this doesn’t necessarily end up representing the country. And you can imagine how likely it would be that a new party would break into more than one electorate at a time. So we had a two-party system. A vote for any other party was a wasted vote and, if you and your partner both happened to favour different parties, you might form a pact not to vote at all, because your votes would just cancel each other out. Which unless you spend the entire election day at home seems to me to be a highly exploitable situation, but whatever.
I feel like shouting very loudly at this point because we changed this in 1993. 1993. I’ve been saying “we” but in reality I have never voted under this system. Never. Not in my life. I turned 18 in 1996, and cast my first vote under the new system, which is called MMP – Mixed Member Proportional. There will be New Zealanders voting in this election who weren’t born last time we were still using First Past the Post. And I am still seeing people on Facebook talking about “wasting votes” by voting for the minor parties. Or asking people to make sure a Labour electorate candidate got in “so that we have one more Labour MP in Parliament.” Or even talking about their votes “cancelling out”. And while I deplore violence, I must in honesty report that talk like this gives rise to images in my brain involving grabbing people by their jackets and head-butting them while yelling “It doesn’t! Work! That! Way! Any! More!”
How it does work is that you cast your vote for both a candidate in your electorate, and a party. And when the votes are counted, all the people who got the majority vote in their electorates get seats in Parliament, just like before, but there are fewer electorates than there are seats in Parliament. Then the remaining seats are dished out in such a way that the total number of seats a party has in Parliament is proportional to the number of party votes they got. So the minor parties can still get in and potentially form coalition governments with other parties. And for a big party like Labour, one more electorate MP just means one less list MP. And because you can have more than two parties, two votes do not “cancel out”. Now there is a wrinkle with smaller parties. Any electorate candidate who gets the majority vote in their electorate becomes an MP, which is right and proper. A party with no electorate MPs only gets any seats at all if its party vote tops the arbitrary value of 5% of the total vote, which automatically gets them six MPs since there are 120 seats in Parliament. However, if a party gets (say) 2.5% of the vote and an electorate MP, then the threshold is ignored, and that party gets a total of three MPs, which is to say two list MPs “riding on the coat-tails” of the electorate MP. A lot of people understandably don’t like what has come to be called the “coat-tailing rule” and argue it should be chopped. We actually had a national debate about our constitutional arrangements a few months ago, but it came up with recommendations the current Government didn’t like. Coat-tailing makes for tricksy politics where you have to vote based on considerations other than whether you want Party A and Candidate B, which is bad. It should probably be dropped, only personally I think it would make more sense to lower the threshold down to about 2% so that you were entitled to MPs as long as you had enough of a party vote for two anyway. So all right, minor party candidate votes might well change the Parliamentary landscape. But not Labour ones.
Oh, one more thing, which I know from Law lectures last year. One thing that hasn’t changed is that the parties are, strictly speaking, irrelevant to who becomes the Government. What happens, constitutionally, is that the MPs all get voted in, and then one MP goes and has a chat with the Governor-General, who represents the Queen in New Zealand, and says “A majority of the MPs in this House will vote for me whenever I raise an issue where the government has to decide about spending money.” The Governor-General agrees, or not. The only place where the party numbers are involved is that the Governor-General has to look at them to evaluate the MP’s claim. If they agree they appoint that MP Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then officially decides who gets to be Ministers. Now, should the Prime Minister ever get outvoted on a money-spending (“supply”) decision, then the Government can no longer function, the Prime Minister is said to have lost the “confidence” of the House. At that point the Governor-General calls another election. I don’t remember whether this has actually happened in New Zealand before, I just remember that this is why these votes are called “confidence-and-supply” votes. I also bring it up because our present Prime Minister, John Key (whom I sincerely wish a long and fulfilling retirement from tomorrow onwards) seems to think that the Governor-General has to bequeath the office of Prime Minister upon the leader of the single party with the biggest number of MPs. This is not the case, it just happens to have worked out that way so far. If he doesn’t have the majority of the House when Parliament reconvenes next year, and he carries on calling himself Prime Minister, then he will either have improperly coerced the Governor-General or he will be flouting New Zealand’s constitutional law. In either case such an action would differ in degree, but not in kind, from certain past offences of his administration.
Right. Now the parties. In approximate order of size—
  • National. National have been the government for the last six years. National’s plan for the New Zealand economy is that we should pump out milk and fossil fuels. When I was small National was run by a big-state social conservative called Robert Muldoon. He is remembered by most New Zealanders older than me as a scary tyrant, and naturally was awarded a knighthood. He got chucked out in 1984, followed by six years of Labour, which I’ll tell you about in a moment, followed by another National government who did things like kicking the teeth out of unions, selling off state assets, smashing up the Welfare State to the condition in which it has largely remained, and, at one point, totally marketizing health so that (I’ve been told this a couple of times in lectures lately) anybody could advertise themselves as a qualified dentist and it would be up to the customers to notice that they were being ripped off. They were voted out in 1996 only it didn’t take for reasons I’ll get to under “NZ First”, and actually had to leave in 1999. Then six years ago they were voted back in again after a campaign that made it look like they were all different and nice now, and understood social issues, after which they became exactly the same as they were in the 1990s except the national debt went up, not down. In 2011, following a gigantic media campaign entirely consisting of Prime Minister John Key smiling at cameras, they were voted back in, with a larger share of the vote than previously – almost entirely at the expense of their coalition partners. This time around I’ve seen far less emetic sycophancy from the media, though sadly not very much more actual criticism. Also in the last month there have been some big blows to their image, mainly Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics and the event on Monday where it was confirmed that they lied last year about not spying on New Zealanders. I predict they will lose votes this year and end up in the low 40s.
  • Labour. I’m not sure what Labour’s large-scale economic policy is, but they are planning to keep some research facilities and factories open, which is nice. Labour and National were the two who ping-ponged back and forth in the First Past the Post days, and they’re still the second-biggest party. By quite a long way, at the moment. They are the oldest Party still in Parliament, and back in the day they were democratic socialists, though I wouldn’t swear that they were Democratic Socialists with capital letters. I gather they held Parliament for a long time before World War II, but from then until 1984 all they could muster was a couple of one-term administrations. In the 1980s Labour started all the malarkey about selling off state assets and charging people for services (like education) that had previously been free, which National then got in in 1990 by promising that they wouldn’t do, only in fact they did it even more. Some of the worse offenders peeled off Labour during the 1990s and formed new parties, but then so did some of the best. In 1999 they got back in with a big portion of the vote under Helen Clark, who, even according to her admirers, then ruled the party and the country with a pretty firm grip. They did fix some of National’s worse excesses, but on a lot of issues they pretty much twiddled their thumbs and just didn’t make things worse. When they lost in 2008 Helen Clark left the leadership, because that’s what party leaders do who lose elections, and went on to become something big at the UN, which I shall just look up, but I might be some time. Administrator of the Development Programme, that’s it, I daren’t research specifically what that is but I gather it’s pretty high up. Unfortunately she left a party which used to be run by its membership and had connections with the trade unions in the control of a Parliamentary faction which no longer had a charismatic leader, and Labour haemorrhaged votes. In 2011 they adopted the cautious tactic of choosing a safe middle-aged middle-class white male leader with a boring voice and centrist policies because it had worked so well for John Kerry and the Democrats in the US seven years before. Phil Goff did not become Prime Minister, so they’ve had some leadership squabbles in the last year or two which the ever-neutral and ever-discerning New Zealand media have milked for all they were worth. Just how badly the mud has stuck, we’ll know tomorrow evening. I think their vote will be somewhere in the low 30s.
  • The Greens. The Greens are the party of the environment, which in this country wracked by mining and intensive dairy-farming means they are pushing design and manufacturing (of renewable energy technologies) as the way up. This would be news to well over half the country. Say the word “Greens” on social media and you get a sort of automatic Pavlovian response that goes “tree-hugger hippie Luddites baaa.” This isn’t the Greens’ fault. They first came to Parliament as part of the Alliance in 1996, that being the party I had voted for. The Alliance went well to start with, but it was run by an old Labour dude who mildly disliked how far right Labour had gone in the 1980s, and he didn’t get on with a lot of his allies. The party disintegrated in the 2000s, with the Greens opting, wisely as it turned out, to go it alone. They have never had an electorate MP – I thought Metiria Turei might win Dunedin North last time, after Pete Hodgson retired and Labour replaced him with a guy we hadn’t heard of, but I was wrong – but their party vote has never gone down before now. I think this trend will continue and they will find themselves somewhere in the mid-teens, though sadly I’m not bold enough to predict 15%. On balance, the Greens have my vote. Though they’re no longer the only show in town, as I will get to below.
  • NZ First. “Winston First” as the other parties like to call it, run by one Winston Peters, a former lackey of Sir Robert Muldoon, who was intelligent enough not to surround himself with intelligent men. Winston has three basic tricks which have served him mostly well since MMP allowed him to break away from National and form his own party in the 1990s. One, appeal to the elderly – and fair’s fair, nobody else does. Two, demonize immigrants. Three, stick to the centre on economics. Up till 1996 I figured he was the kind of guy you want in the Opposition. You know the type – eloquent at shouting down bad ideas, short on coming up with good ones. Actually, that’s more or less what I think of him now, too. But in 1996 he campaigned on a promise to get rid of the National Government, and on polling night his party was in what we came to call the “King-Maker” position, i.e. in the centre such that neither side could form a government without him. He explained afterwards that he’d replaced the National Government with a National-NZ-First Government. The following three years were a three-ring circus of epic proportions, because Winston got on well with National Prime Minister Jim Bolger, but Bolger left in under a year and was replaced by Jenny Shipley, with whom Winston did not get on at all. A bunch of Winston’s MPs went and formed some other party of their own, if I recall correctly, which proceeded to implode. Act (see below) propped up National on confidence-and-supply until the election. Winston managed to scrape back in in his home electorate of Tauranga, where a lot of New Zealand’s elderly go to retire. He was invited back in to Helen Clark’s Cabinet, and in 2005 she appointed him Foreign Minister, after which I watched her carefully for a little while waiting for the alien parasites to burst out of her, but it turned out to be a very shrewd strategy, because he couldn’t play his party trick any more – the Foreign Minister can’t go around bad-mouthing immigrants from the places he has to be diplomatic to. In 2008 he, and NZ First, were out of Parliament altogether. In 2011, no longer hampered by a Foreign Ministry, they got back in – the only party so far to have done so in New Zealand history. It looks like Winston will be in the king-maker position again this time. All in all things are starting to look horribly redolent of 1996.
  • The Māori Party. New Zealand’s Parliament has a few Māori electorate seats, which only Māori can vote for. This is about as unfair to Pākehā voters (“Pākehā” is the Māori name for the English-speaking majority culture of New Zealand) as the fact that I can’t vote in Christchurch because I don’t live there, but that doesn’t stop them complaining. To MMP and the philosophy of the Greens, you can add to the list of “electoral matters that most New Zealanders just cannot seem to get into their heads” the fact that Māori people still only get to cast one vote each. Now in 2004, I think it was, the Labour Government ruled that commercial land-owners could take land claims to the foreshore and seabed to court, but traditional Māori land-owners could not. Pete Hodgson told me why once, with that “you are too stupid for words” tone that was so uniquely his (and don’t get me wrong, it was great when he used it on people that I also disagreed with) but he must have figured my IQ right because I can’t remember the details. What I do remember is that Tariana Turia of the Labour Party could not be having with it, and she and a few others split off and formed the Māori Party in response. In 2008, after a quasi-military “anti-terror” police action that harmed a lot of Māori people, they buddied up with National, who had run on openly bigoted campaigns previously but were now playing nicey-nice. Māori voters punished them at the polls and returned to Labour, but in 2011 they did it again – and are thus arguably responsible for the Government we’ve had for the last three years, since they were in the king-maker position. Since then both the charismatic co-leaders have left. I predict they will get about 1% of the party vote. I wouldn’t care to bet whether any of their MPs will win an electorate seat, but even if they do their coat-tails will be too small to ride on.
  • The Conservatives. They aren’t in Parliament at all, but I’m putting them here because of their polling, and so that Colin Craig doesn’t sue me. The Conservatives are the latest incarnation of a phenomenon that provides entertainment value regularly at New Zealand elections. One: New party campaigns on being Christian fundamentalists, against gays and abortion and usually wanting to abolish the Māori seats, with the exception of the second-latest incarnation, the Destiny Party, whose support base were Māori Christian conservatives. Two: New party gets lots of media attention from their public, and completely un-self-aware, expressions of bigotry. Three: New party is defeated at the polls and never heard of again. There have been variants. In 2005 a group of Christians who didn’t believe in participating in politics participated in politics by running an anonymous smear campaign against the Labour Government. Brian Tamaki of Destiny didn’t just put forward a party, he led a church of his own and appointed himself Bishop. And the former leader of the 1990s’ Christian Coalition later was arrested for sexually assaulting children. I think the Conservatives are the same thing all over again, and that they too will fail at the Parliamentary hurdle, but you can never quite be certain. They’re getting close enough to the 5% threshold in the polls that there’s been talk of National urging its voters to vote for Craig in the relevant electorate, so as to have an extra coalition partner. It doesn’t look like they’re going to pop the threshold, but they’re close. From a short-term and purely selfish tactical perspective I would love it if they get 4.9% of the vote and then Craig doesn’t get the seat, but thinking on a larger scale that would be a travesty of democracy. I don’t think they’ll make it to 4.9. But actually I’m not betting much money here either way.
  • Internet Mana. Internet Mana are going to be interesting, and if you’re not a New Zealander you’re probably boggling that a party would call itself that. Hone Harawira split off the Māori Party over their willingness to compromise their core principles to stay with National. His new party was called Mana from a Māori word which, outside of this country, would mostly be recognised from its misuse for a mechanic to make magic work in fantasy role-playing games. Broadly speaking it means charisma, dignity, the personal quality which we recognise in bowing to a leader. Hone got back into Parliament with a comfortable result in an electorate by-election which the pollsters were saying was too close to call. That’s the Mana part of Internet Mana. Now, in the last few years, a new figure has appeared on the New Zealand political scene: a German billionaire named Kim Dotcom, who runs a website which allows you to get past copyright protection for a whole lot of stuff. The first we heard of him, he supported Act (see below), but after the National Government tried to get him extradited, apparently as part of a deal with Warner Bros. over a movie deal for the Hobbit series, he seems to have decided to back whoever they hate most. And who they hate most turned out to be some of the old Alliance crowd, notably Laila Harré, who topped their party list. They announced themselves as the “Internet Party” and then formed an alliance with Mana, hence: Internet Mana. It may be Harré’s influence that’s got them standing on the platform of free tertiary education, which I have always backed to the hilt, and some day soon I will do a post on why, which was one of the posts I intended to do before the election, but this is how the cookie has crumbled. They’re also supporting removing the regressive Goods and Services Tax on food, which is a point on which the Greens have sadly stumbled. So for the first time in years there’s a party which I would take seriously as an alternative to the Greens. However, they have yet to convince me that they understand why the environment is important (as opposed to being merely a way to lure the middle-class to the Left); they haven’t evinced a deep understanding of some deep structural issues like patriarchy and rape culture; and given that they’re two parties glued together, and propped up by Kim Dotcom, I can’t quite shake off my worry that after the election they’re going to fall apart all to buggery. Which would be a tremendous shame. They are not going to cross the 5% threshold, but Harawira’s electorate will, on the balance of probabilities, likely return him to Parliament, in which case he’ll take at least Harré with him.
  • Act. Originally formed when some of the most neoliberal Labour Party people split away in the 1990s and started supporting National. “ACT” then stood for “Association of Consumers and Taxpayers”, but I haven’t heard them use that for years. For a while they billed themselves as the cool younger bro of capitalism, but then they were taken over by National’s pet puppy John Banks, who is especially associated with the idea of cool on account of being its exact opposite, and who lost his electorate seat a month or two ago when he was found to have breached electoral law getting into Parliament. He’s been replaced by a young shaved-bald English guy called Jamie Whyte, who calls himself a “classical liberal”, which here means someone who disapproves of liberalism having learned from its mistakes since the Enlightenment. At the moment, Whyte is Act. Barring electorate skulduggery, I don’t think they’ll be in Parliament next time around.
  • United Future. No longer a party, they were deregistered because they couldn’t drum up enough followers. I’m not sure if that’s still the case; if it is, Peter Dunne is running as an independent electorate candidate. Which is what he’s pretty much been for at least twelve years now. He always votes for what the government wants, no matter what that is. I don’t live in his electorate so I don’t know why they keep voting for him. He’ll probably be back.
And now it’s after 8pm. I’ve got to go. This is why I can’t write short little daily posts. They never come out short. See you after the election.

1 comment:

  1. "John Banks, who is especially associated with the idea of cool on account of being its exact opposite"


    On the last Back Benches, Marama was asked what she would take to a desert island. She said that for the good of Aotearoa, she would sacrifice herself and take Jamie Whyte.