Tuesday, 26 September 2017

We don’t know how our election went yet

I shouldn’t think anybody gets their news about New Zealand from this blog and has been waiting on tenterhooks. But in case my last post left you wondering, I had to go back to hospital again and it turned out to be a kidney stone rather than the gastrointestinal issue I was diagnosed with at first. Oh, the election? How did that go? Who’s going to govern New Zealand for the next three years? The answer, I can reveal, is: we don’t know either.

No party commands a majority in Parliament. On the votes so far counted, the neoliberal National Party has several more seats in Parliament than the edging-towards-social-democratic Labour-Greens bloc. But the key phrase there is “so far counted”. I’ve seen several media commentators jumping the gun at this point and talking about what happens next as if the count was over. It isn’t. New Zealand electoral law allows for people to cast what are called “special votes” before election day, if they’re not going to be in their home electorate on election day, or if they’re not enrolled to vote yet and want to cast a vote at the same time that they enroll instead of waiting, or there’s a few other things, I think. (Lately we also allow people to vote early just because they want to, but those don’t necessarily count as special votes.) The point is, special votes aren’t counted on election night. They’re counted over the next couple of weeks, since a lot of them have to come in from New Zealanders travelling overseas. So we don’t have them yet.

Special votes often swing one or two seats – generally not enough to upset the election result. This year, however, there was a record number of special votes, amounting to about 15% of the ballots. Before the election there were predictions of a “youthquake” driven by the rise of Jacinda Ardern. Some commentators are saying that didn’t happen after all. Those commentators, I hereby confidently predict, are going to end up with egg on their faces when the special votes come in. Elections across the Western world have been going quite differently, the last couple of years, from what pundits have predicted; it’s a good bet that the “youthquake” and the record special vote are the same thing. I’m not counting chickens.

Unfortunately, unless the special votes are wildly out of kilter with the other 85%, it won’t be enough to change the practical outcome of the election, which is that either bloc will have to make nice to Winston Peters and his New Zealand First party in order to gain a majority. This is the third time he’s held this position. In 1996, having campaigned on a promise to get rid of the National government, he supported National, who made him Deputy Prime Minister. In 2005 he supported Labour, whose then leader Helen Clark made him Minister of Foreign Affairs – but that time arguably there was a real risk of a Left government forming without him, if only Clark had had the stomach to reach out to the Greens. Now he’s back in the kingmaker seat again. Whether the final distribution of votes between Left and Right will influence his choice remains to be seen.

I’ve had occasion before, on this blog, to talk about what kind of a politician Winston Peters is. With apologies to those of my readers who don’t watch Game of Thrones: back when Metiria Turei resigned from the Green co-leadership, a Facebook friend of mine compared her to Ned Stark and National to the Lannisters. (Another objected that Lannisters always pay their debts.) On that analogy, Winston Peters is Littlefinger, playing off all the parties against each other and thriving on division – if Littlefinger, instead of being a preternaturally cunning manipulator, were a cynic who’d happened to find a single unvarying tactic that, depressingly, always worked. Think of Donald Trump for a moment (sorry). Remember how a lot of people last year were pinning their last desperate hope on the possibility that he was just faking it for votes? Winston is like if Donald Trump had been just faking it for votes. He runs the same campaign every three years, like clockwork, blaming immigrants for New Zealand’s troubles; then he gets voted back in, shoots his mouth off a lot, and does nothing whatsoever about immigration.

He does, nevertheless, do considerable damage to New Zealand political life by keeping open and inflamed the festering sore that is anti-Asian racism in this country. It’s 2017 and we still can’t have a sensible conversation about immigration policy without scads of conspiratorial rubbish about clandestine Chinese takeovers – asinine comments on the level of “Asians aren’t bad people but there’s too many of them.” To give credit where it’s due, National no longer pander to this particular prejudice, which is not to say that they’ve repudiated racism in general. I have lived to see the Left-Right cultural divide in New Zealand turn into a question of which kinds of racism we have to tolerate: racism against Asian and sometimes Jewish people, or racism against Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Muslims. No wonder it’s difficult raising political enthusiasm in young progressive types these days. And no wonder the electorates with the largest Asian populations were those which saw the support for National rise. I blame Winston.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Just one reason to vote Left this weekend

This was going to be a great big post setting down who I was going to vote for this weekend and why. But on Monday I fell ill during a lecture – severe abdominal pains – and took myself off to Dunedin Hospital, where I spent the next twenty-four hours. Pretty much the same thing happened to me about six years ago, only I didn’t have this job then and was in the middle of a life-modelling session for some local artists. And I’ll tell you, after six more years of tax cuts and government neglect, New Zealand’s health system is showing quite a bit of strain. I don’t blame the nurses and doctors for putting me off until they’d looked after other people. I blame the system that cut funding for health professionals to be paid and placed and allowed to rest appropriately. I blame the political ideology and the economic orthodoxy that hold that this is all for the good if it means more money in the pockets of the rich.

So who am I voting for? The Labour Party is the furthest left right now that it’s been in my lifetime, and they’re promising free tertiary education, which gladdens my heart as one whose political awakening began in 1996 with the chant “What do we want? Free education! When do we want it? Now!” But I’m still voting Green; partly because they still have a small edge over Labour in some policy areas, mainly because there’s a serious possibility that they’ll drop under the 5% threshold this election and if that happens then their six seats will be divided up between the parties that do get in, which means National will get two or three of them, and the Left may end up without a majority after all.

That’s about as much as I can manage right now. Hospital takes it out of you and I haven’t managed to eat much and keep it down over the last couple of days.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Hurricanes are not a matter of opinion

As I write, the southeastern United States is being torn apart by hurricanes, and the west coast ravaged by bushfires. I’d say I was wondering how long it’ll take before the global warming deniers admit they were wrong and apologize. But of course that isn’t going to happen. Individuals sometimes change their minds when presented with counter-evidence, but it never happens en masse. Don’t wait for it.

Perhaps the news shouldn’t be expected to make much difference. Science is already based on real-world facts; if you’re going to deny science, why should a hurricane in the Caribbean be any harder to handwave away than an oxygen isotope reading in the Antarctic? A small subset of deniers are consciously dishonest. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, told his listeners that Hurricane Irma was a government conspiracy and then quietly left town. More often, they query whether this or that particular hurricane is caused by global warming, which is hard to fact-check because it’s always difficult to demonstrate the causes of a single event by scientific means. What science can tell us is that phenomenon A (here global warming) will cause phenomenon B (hurricanes) to happen more often and get bigger. And lo and behold, hurricanes are happening more often and getting bigger. As evidence mounts, there comes a point where scepticism is just quibbling.

Once global warming becomes undeniable, deniers have a position to retreat to: yes it’s happening, but it’s not our fault. There are natural climate change cycles! they exclaim, apparently under the impression that climate scientists are unaware of this. (I wonder who they think the information comes from?) One particularly vociferous climate change denier in my Facebook feed keeps posting, over and over again, a graph showing cyclic changes in temperature over the last 450 thousand years from three sites in Antarctica – a graph which conveniently happens to be on too small a scale to show the drastic uptick of the last fifty years. Here’s a better visualization from xkcd.

Global warming is an imminent threat. We should be mobilizing against it the way our grandparents did against the Nazis. The problem with that, of course, is that it isn’t a personal enemy with a villainous face to trigger our primate “intruder-alert” instincts. The villain is ourselves and the very systems we have laboured so hard over generations to build so that those who come after us can have a better life. It’s not just one technology that can be stopped, excised, and cleaned up, like asbestos or chlorofluorocarbons. It’s everything. Part of the problem is that, having put off and put off and put off doing anything about it for so long, we now need both an urgent solution and a permanent solution, and those may end up being very different things. Nuclear power might have to be part of the urgent solution. It can’t be the permanent solution, because uranium, like fossil fuels, will run out.

Politically, global warming is a hard issue to pigeonhole: it’s scientific and environmental and economic and geopolitical and educational and a Left/Right tribal marker. And that leads to the weakest and worst last-ditch attempt to stop people talking about it in connection with the hurricanes: “Stop politicizing tragedies!” I mean, yes, sometimes politicians do cynically exploit unfortunate events to raise their own profile; I’m not excusing that. More often, however, “Don’t politicize this problem” means “Your politics offer a better way of fixing it than mine do, and I’d rather people didn’t figure that out.” I can sympathize with a preference for peace over contention, but politics can be operationally defined as the set of problems which are more important than not being contentious. Saving the world from disaster certainly qualifies.