Tuesday, 30 September 2014

What I’d need not to have known, to have voted National

I spent quite a while tweaking that title. I’m still a little angry over the way the election went. I don’t think I’m going to be less angry any time in the next three years. But it’s become undeniable that this isn’t like 1999, when most of the country had just plain had enough of the National Party’s bullshit, and our main concern was to make sure Labour didn’t slide too far to the right. Come to that, most of the country had had enough of National’s bullshit by 1996, it’s just that a critical minority made the mistake of trusting Winston Peters. This time, we need to try and understand what’s going wrong for the Left in New Zealand. We can’t retreat into comfortingly aggressive slogans about how our opponents are just pigs and their voters just sheep.
I want to be very clear about one thing from the start. When I talk about the Left, I’m referring to a certain cluster of political theories and attitudes; I do not mean a particular party or parties within New Zealand’s parliamentary system. I was six years old the last time Labour could say they stood for workers and the poor without people coughing behind their hands. I am not interested in Labour returning to 40% of the vote if it has to abandon the struggle for equality (again) to do so. My vision is not of a country where National is pretty much still in government only they wear red ties instead of blue. But on the other hand it’s vital we learn something from this. We’re going to need to have some very forthright conversations about what is and what is not essential to the Left. And we’re going to need to reach a general consensus. And after that, anything that turns out to be a secondary concern is going to need to be sidelined unless it’s a means for achieving the primary concerns, and that question is going to need to be settled on the basis of evidence.
Undoubtedly there were many things that went wrong at the campaign stage, especially with Labour. The revelations this past month about the National Party’s wrongdoings, first by Nicky Hager, then by Greenwald and Snowden, may perhaps have robbed Labour of “oxygen”, i.e., the airspace to get their own positive ideas out. Somebody pointed out rather acerbically – I’d give you the link if I could find it again – that on that basis the Watergate scandal should have propelled Richard Nixon to unprecedented heights in the polls. There are differences, of course. Watergate broke two years, not one month or one week, before Nixon’s potential re-election; and the United States has a two-party system, so there was only one other realistic option on the card. Still, I don’t think it’s much of an excuse. One month before the election, Labour’s values and general policy orientation should already have been generally known. They should have been able to pick up Dirty Politics and say “See? See? National are so nasty they need to resort to tricks like this to keep people voting for them.”
A much more obvious failing was one pointed out two months ago by Chris Trotter at The Daily Blog:
...really, the hoarding facing us was all about Phil Goff. It was his ugly mug and buck-toothed smile that confronted the viewer, and his name in bold sans-serif that somebody had helpfully placed a big tick underneath. Oh sure, right down the very bottom you could, if you squinted hard enough, make out the Labour Party’s slogan “Vote Positive”, and yes, there was even an exhortation to “Party Vote Labour”. But, seriously, nobody driving by is going to have time to register anything other than the local MP, Phil Goff, is soliciting their vote.
I’m told this is happening all over the country. That the hoardings erected by Labour electorate MPs are, overwhelmingly, self-promoting. Not the party (unless you have very good eyesight). And certainly not the Leader. (God forbid!) In spite of delivering the worst result in 90 years, the so-called “election strategy” of 2011, promote the candidate – not the party, is being idiotically repeated – by the same idiots!
...The fundamental message of the MMP system: Only the Party Vote matters! is, once again, being studiously ignored by MPs whose only concern is to retain their seniority in Labour’s faction-ridden caucus.
What this will produce, just as it did in 2011, is the absurdity of Labour plummeting to 27 percent in the Party Vote, but capturing 32 percent of the Electorate Vote. Had those figures been reversed on Election Night three years ago, Phil Goff would now be Prime Minister.
Chris Trotter, “Selfies: Labour’s electorate MPs are at it again”, The Daily Blog, 25 July 2014
Trotter’s predictions for the election this year have yoyoed all over the place, but this particular article led to a singularly pessimistic and, in the event, accurate conclusion: “Labour is heading for the worst defeat in its 98-year history.” However, I think the cause of the problem may be even sadder, in a way, than Trotter’s diagnosis. It wasn’t that MPs were only concerned about getting themselves re-elected – or it wasn’t just that. Take a look at this graphic, which got posted on a Left Facebook group a couple of weeks ago:
Tactical voting advice aimed at taking electorate seats off the Right
Isn’t it awful? In case you can’t be bothered digging into the semi-coherent rant I posted just before the election, let me repeat the relevant bit while removing some of the less well-considered phrasing:
...we changed [our voting system] in 1993... I turned 18 in 1996, and cast my first vote under the new system, which is called MMP – Mixed Member Proportional...
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... 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... So all right, minor party candidate votes might well change the Parliamentary landscape. But not Labour ones.
So whoever made this graphic got it right three times out of eight. The Conservatives missed out on getting any seats because Murray McCully won the candidate vote in East Coast Bays, and Act and United Future would have been out too if their candidates hadn’t won in Epsom and Ohariu, respectively. The other squares are dead wrong. Voting for a Labour candidate instead of a National one accomplished nothing. And one striking feature of this election was that Labour got an awful lot more electorate votes than party votes. But this graphic was not produced by a sitting centrist Labour MP trying to retain their senior position in the caucus. I had an argument in the Facebook comments thread with someone who turned out to be running for Labour in a North Island electorate. I’ve blurred out the name but I can tell you this person was not then and is not now a Member of Parliament.
I explain why winning an electorate seat off National won’t change the allocation of seats in Parliament
“If we win this seat, that’s one less seat National will have.” It’s getting hard to avoid the conclusion that Labour just plain doesn’t understand MMP. The same ignorance perhaps underlies their behaviour towards their potential Left allies, the Greens and Internet Mana. Green co-leader Russel Norman suggested to Labour earlier this year that the two parties run a joint campaign to get rid of National; he was turned down. And Labour’s Kelvin Davis campaigned hard against Hone Harawira in Te Tai Tokerau, thus blocking Internet Mana from entering Parliament and closing off two potential Left seats for no particular gain. That said, I do suspect that Harawira lost some credibility with some of his voters when he became associated with Kim Dotcom (through no fault of the Internet Party, I should add). It seems many Māori felt that helping a rich German dude get back at the Prime Minister for trying to kick him out of the country wasn’t what the Māori seats in Parliament were for.
So that’s one thing that went wrong with the Left: the biggest party on our side of the House doesn’t know how elections work nowadays. Another thing is the non-vote. The number of people who aren’t voting has been growing at every election for years, I gather it’s kind of plateaued this time. There have been several suggestions as to what’s going wrong.
  • People don’t have the time on election day.
  • People are so satisfied with the way the country is headed that they don’t see the need to be bothered.
  • People see all the parties as exactly equally good, and if they had voted they would have voted for all of them in equal proportion.
  • People like Left policies but see no-one on the ballot capable of implementing them.
  • People were swayed by Russel Brand and other silly big talkers into thinking that not voting was somehow a protest against the system.
  • People are poor, don’t see any hope for their future, and don’t imagine that anyone privileged enough to run for Parliament cares what happens to them.
Last time around they surveyed people who hadn’t voted, and the most common answer was “didn’t have time on the day.” So this time early voting was a lot easier and a lot more widely publicized, and it’s hardly made any difference at all. That presumably just goes to show something; my guess, and it’s only a guess, is that whether someone “has time” for something depends on how important it is to them as well as what else they have to do that day. I mean, I had a big choir concert to sing for that Saturday and I made time to vote. The next couple of options on the list I would be sceptical of. Simon Lusk is on record (in Dirty Politics) as saying that the non-vote favours the Right, and as Simon Lusk is National’s election campaign manager I’d say he’s recently demonstrated his authority on the subject. That leaves us with the bottom three, and presumably there are people in each category among the non-voters. I support the general aims and ethos of the Occupy movement, but there were a few speakers there who got up and told people not to vote, and I don’t support that one little bit. But we don’t know how many there were in each category. And that’s information we urgently need. Unless of course the strategy is to let the non-voters go hang and swing right to try and win back votes from National, and as I say if Labour goes that way then there ends my interest in supporting Labour, even via a Parliamentary partner.
Now one possibility that I must, as a good free-thinker, take seriously, is that National voters know something I don’t about what’s good for the country. When dealing with people I take it as an axiom, until firm evidence to the contrary becomes available, that they are not stupid. In this you will notice I differ from our recently re-elected Prime Minister, who has been known to tell the nation on prime-time television that New Zealanders are so pitifully lacking in higher brain function as to care more about recreational fishing than their fundamental democratic right to privacy. (I’m interpolating slightly, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he thinks deflecting the interviewer’s questions with the same non-answer a dozen times in a row is only just sufficient to bring his point within the comprehension of his audience.) So I’m going to steer clear of the rather insulting assessments of the New Zealand voting public that are going around at the moment.
But one can be an intelligent, moderately informed, and comparatively decent person, and not know the facts on some issues that are politically relevant. There’s no insult in saying someone probably doesn’t know some things that I do. I assume anybody who works in a specialist profession or has had higher education knows some things that I don’t. Well, here are some things that I know that I imagine most New Zealanders probably don’t. And put together, they add up to the conclusion that National was a ghastly choice of party vote. My best recommendation for the Left, therefore, is to get facts like these into the public domain over the next year and a half. Don’t leave it until the election campaign. An election campaign needs to consist of a few clear, strong, simple messages. These take a fraction more explaining.

Clean rivers are not a “nice-to-have”

National has signalled that one of the first things they want to do when Parliament reconvenes is push through their changes to the Resource Management Act, which they failed to last time round because the Māori Party wouldn’t co-operate and that lost them their majority by a whisker. I saw those proposed changes, and apart from one small recommendation that building resource consents should include earthquake safety planning, they were terrible. National wants resource consents to take into account the “economic benefit” of the proposed projects, as well as their environmental impact. This is exactly as good an idea as making it so that Warrant of Fitness tests can let unsafe cars on the road as long as the use of that car is important enough to the driver’s occupation. But most New Zealanders wouldn’t see that, I don’t think, because they don’t consider environmental damage to be a problem the way road accidents are.
The Green Party campaigned on the health of New Zealand’s rivers again this time around. And their focus was one I would normally recommend, namely showing people how the issue affected their own lives: they pointed out that most rivers are no longer safe to swim in. Unfortunately I think a lot of people’s reaction was along the lines of “Sure, swimming is nice, but not as important as dairy industry jobs.” I don’t think it is general knowledge in New Zealand just what’s at stake. Farms downstream have to use that water for their stock, pastures, and crops. Toxins build up in the soil and grass and end up in the product. We’ve already had one shipment of milk powder turned back at the Chinese border because of contamination. Incidents like that will become more frequent and more severe in the coming years.
New Zealand’s dairy industry at present depends entirely on deceiving the world about our levels of water pollution; were it ever to become known that we’re less than perfect, people would stop buying our stuff because of the food miles. Well, we’re way, way less than perfect. The Manawatū is now one of the most polluted rivers on Earth. Sooner or later the truth is going to come out. The Left needs to make this general knowledge, so that if the crash happens on National’s watch we can say “We told you so,” and if it happens after a change of government we can say “We did warn you about this.” By the way, this is not a general condemnation of New Zealand agriculture. Federated Farmers likes to make out that an attack on dairy is an attack on all farmers, but when scientists measured streams running off sheep and beef farms, they found they were just as clean as those running off natural tussock. The problem is dairy and dairy alone.

Fossil fuel wealth is a curse

National think drilling for oil offshore is a great idea to grow the economy and create jobs. Sadly they’ve managed to convince a lot of people, including some lefties. I don’t know how sincere National are about the “creating jobs” part of this, seeing as the economy has grown 4% per year while they’ve been in and unemployment is rising. Part of what’s wrong with it is that drilling will do permanent environmental damage (with consequences similar to the above, only to our fisheries) for a temporary benefit. Oil doesn’t grow back underground, you see, so once it’s been dug up and burned and contributed to global warming – save your conspiracy theories, I also believe in evolution, the Holocaust, the Moon landings, that Barack Obama was born in the United States, that 9/11 was an outside job, and that Paul McCartney is as of this writing still alive – once all that has happened your mine stops being of any use. Any spills, however, stay spilled.
But I suppose one could conceivably reply “Jobs are more important than all that.” The other problem is that oil wealth doesn’t, in fact, create jobs. Some countries get very rich indeed by exploiting oil, but that wealth doesn’t go to the citizens. Creating jobs would imply that the wealth was being distributed across a broad sector of the population, which is not what happens with oil wealth. Places with oil wealth have a tiny élite composed of a few exceedingly rich people, while the rest of the population remains in poverty. In fact, in places where oil has been discovered and exploited, the majority of the population end up worse off than before, between the effects of pollution and the effects of inequality. Economists call it the Oil Curse. Think of Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, or Venezuela. Hugo Chávez’s best efforts to implement socialism in Venezuela couldn’t shift it. Only Norway, which already had a seriously redistributive economy, has managed to turn oil into jobs. New Zealand once had a comparably redistributive economy; it doesn’t any more.

Capitalist economic theory has holes in it

We on the Left have a bad habit of shrugging off what the other side says, because we know it’s all just a cloak for greed anyway – just as they shrug off what we say because they think we’re all power-hungry lunatics who hate freedom. It would seem that they’re doing a better job of convincing the public at present. I really think it couldn’t hurt to have some specific counters to capitalist arguments, but that means we have to demonstrate that they fail on their own terms. Which I’m afraid we can’t do unless we understand what their terms are. Why, for example, does National think it’s a good idea to grow the dairy and mining industries at the expense of everything else? The answer is something called Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage. It works like this.
Most often the argument is made for countries, but in fact the agents can be any scale; it works just as well for firms, local businesses, or individuals, and it’s probably easiest to understand with individuals. Suppose that you are a fantastic carpenter and also a pretty damn good baker. And suppose that I am a moderately good baker and a crappy carpenter. Even though you’re a better baker than me, things work out best for us both if you fix up both our houses and I make bread and cake for both of us. You making your own baked goods would take time away that you could be using for carpentry; me doing my own carpentry would result in me falling through the floor. So even though you’re better at it, I have what John Ricardo (I don’t know, some eighteenth-century dude, he was mates with Adam Smith I think) called a “comparative advantage” in baking. The maths works out exactly the same if it’s countries exporting goods instead of neighbours doing services for each other. National voters use this logic to argue that New Zealand has an “advantage” in dairy and mining, and trying to cut back on them will result in lost export dollars. Other countries have the advantage in manufacturing and expertise, and things work out best if we just buy it off them with dairy products.
The flaw in this logic is that you can’t keep extending it forever. Ricardo didn’t know anything about ecology. My individual example up there didn’t take your health into account. You might be the best carpenter around, but you can’t be fixing houses all day and night or your back will go out and you’ll get occupational overuse syndrome and probably arthritis, and then your carpentry skills will suffer, quite likely permanently. You’re probably better off taking regular breaks from carpentry, even though that may mean less money in the short term. If that means there are some goods you can’t quite afford, it might even be worthwhile spending that spare time making them for yourself on a small scale. Then if you do lose your aptitude for carpentry, or if some other carpenter moves into town who’s even better, you have something else to fall back on. The national-level analogy is what I’ve already explained, about pushing dairy until our rivers poison us. Comparative advantage does not make finite resources infinite. Just because New Zealand currently has an “advantage” in dairy doesn’t make it a bad idea to develop our own manufacturing industry on the side. National has let manufacturing in this country go to ruin over the last six years; go Google what happened to Hillside Works.

A free labour market cannot improve wages and conditions for workers

Heads up: I don’t think we’re going to convince New Zealanders of this by insisting that markets never accomplish anything good at all ever, which is the usual line when socialists and social democrats talk amongst themselves. But we have to convince them somehow, because this is how National will defend their attacks on the minimum wage and workers’ conditions. Capitalist economic theory sees workers as sellers in a market, you see. It’s just like selling a car – if you don’t like the offer you’re given you can always turn it down. Then employers, as buyers, will be forced to raise the prices they offer for your labour. Simple supply and demand. What’s not to like?
What’s not to like is that “simple supply and demand” is the opposite of the way the labour market works. The idea of supply and demand is that sellers want high prices and buyers want low prices. If the price goes too high, buyers will stop buying; if it goes too low, sellers will stop selling. According to that theory, workers should work fewer hours as wages and conditions get worse, and more as they get better. But we all know that’s not what happens, because you need to obtain a certain amount of money in a week to feed yourself. If your wages are low you work more hours to make sure you stay above the line. As your income rises, you can better afford to take time off. This basic behaviour has been confirmed by dozens of studies in the psychology lab, and a famous field study on New York cab drivers. In economic jargon, labour is “negatively elastic”. And that means that employers will never be forced to raise wages by supply and demand. Quite the contrary. Supply and demand, without a living minimum wage mandated by law, will always push wages to rock bottom. If you get into an argument about this online with a National supporter who prides themselves on their superior mastery of economics, tell them “The labour market is negatively elastic” and flick them that link.

Tax fraud costs the economy incomparably more than benefit fraud

Well, not literally incomparably. It’s about a three-hundred-fold difference. In 2010 each New Zealander lost approximately $5 to benefit fraud and very approximately $1500 to tax evasion. I know which one of those I think is more worth getting upset about. This time it’s not a complicated argument. Show them the numbers. They will, of course, come up with some other rationalization for why benefit fraud is still worse, the real reason of course being that benefit fraudsters are smelly with missing teeth and tax fraudsters wear nice clean suits. It doesn’t matter as much as you might think whether you force someone to concede the point on the spot (this hardly ever happens). Some people will go away and think about it. Some people who were watching the argument and undecided will be convinced. And above all, the facts will become widely known, and National might just be stuck with reminders of who they’re really working for whenever they try and bash beneficiaries in three years’ time.

National has already seriously threatened New Zealand’s democratic constitution

The nitty-gritty details of how the government works are, let’s face it, tedious. I wouldn’t know anything about them if I hadn’t happened to take some notes in Law and Politics lectures. I think the same goes for many New Zealanders. I think most of us have this idea that there are some things the Government just can’t do – that if they decided they weren’t going to hold the next election until 2025, say, there is some kind of system of checks and balances in place to stop them. And there is, of course. But what you might not notice, if you hadn’t had to type seventy words a minute, three hours a week, about the way our country is constituted, is that some of the more boring-sounding political news items that have come over the TV and radio in the last three years have been the sound of National kicking away at those checks and balances. Let me pick out three:
  1. The Courts. Parliament makes the law, then the Courts interpret the law. That’s how it works. The Courts don’t tell Parliament what laws to make, and Parliament doesn’t tell the Courts what laws they can and can’t rule on. But National, three years or so ago, changed the law concerning disabled care so that certain groups of people could not sue for more money. This means the Government can now decide on a whim what that law “actually” means and no-one can tell them otherwise. What they’ve done once, they can do again.
  2. Environment Canterbury. Environment Canterbury was a democratic local governing body that did what its name sounds like, it made decisions on environmental matters in Canterbury. Then they started saying things that National didn’t like, so National got rid of the elected officials and appointed new people who would do what they told them.
  3. Parliamentary urgency. Normally a proposed law is read three times in Parliament before the final decision, and in between it is taken to what’s called a “select committee” who present it to the people for submissions and comments. This is where democracy really happens – where the people really have the chance to get their opinion heard. I mean, yes, elections are a necessary part of democracy as well, but I’d like to think I live in a democracy more than one day in every three years. Sometimes of course Parliament has to make decisions in a hurry, as they did after the Christchurch earthquake in 2011, so there is an alternative process called “urgency” where a Bill is only read once before it’s passed or rejected. Since the earthquake National has realized that there’s nothing to say they have to save “urgency” for an actual emergency situation, and they’ve run bills through, bypassing democracy, whenever they’ve known they would be unpopular.
I invite readers of this blog to add further examples. And please pass this information around, whether it’s this particular blog post or not. The campaign to make sure National doesn’t get a fourth term starts now. Yes, the Left parties need to get their act together, it’s true. But even more, we need to have a solid arsenal of truth to beat down National’s lies.

No comments:

Post a Comment