Saturday, October 21, 2017

The demeaning of democracy

(First published in The Dominion Post on October 20.)

I’m writing this column on Thursday morning. Winston Peters, who is described as the kingmaker but behaves as if he’s actually sitting on the throne, has said he’ll make an announcement about the formation of a new government this afternoon.

We shall see. With Peters, who knows?

Everyone’s talking about the time lag, but that should be the least of our concerns. Other western democracies have taken months to form coalition governments and haven’t suffered any obvious harm.

No, what should cause us to rise up in disgust is that the post-election circus has made a travesty of democracy.

For that we can principally blame Peters – but not just Peters alone. Both Bill English and Jacinda Ardern, by kowtowing to Peters, have been complicit in the demeaning of the process by which we elect governments.

The media are not without blame either. By dancing around the New Zealand First leader and hanging on his every snarled utterance, they have encouraged the delusion that he’s entitled to decide our next government.

It’s only in the past few days that commentators have started to openly question the morality of a situation in which a party that won a mere 7.2 per cent of the vote, and lost its only electorate seat, should determine who will govern us.

There is a place in the political ecosystem for the Peters party. You can see why people voted for it. But a flawed system has given New Zealand First a degree of power and influence far beyond that to which it’s entitled.

In any half-rational and honourable democratic system, National and Labour – which between them won 81 percent of the vote and all but one of the 71 electorate seats – would have dictated the terms of coalition negotiations and perhaps humoured Peters with a few policy concessions.

Failing that, English could have made a principled decision not to play Peters’ game. If things came to the worst, he could have chosen to sit out the next three years and watch a Labour-New Zealand First-Greens coalition tear itself apart, as it almost certainly would.

Instead we’ve ended up with the worst possible option: a washed-up politician, unwanted by his own electorate, behaving as if the country had handed him a mandate to dictate the government agenda for the next three years, or however long any ramshackle coalition with Peters at its centre might last.

It’s been reported that he expects to be deputy prime minister, whichever party he goes with. What colossal gall from a politician who couldn’t even persuade his own electorate to return him to Parliament.

But that’s Peters. We know him well and shouldn’t be surprised.

What was less foreseeable was that both National and Labour were reportedly prepared to humour Peters’ preposterous ambition. Like everything else that has happened since election day, this makes a mockery of democracy.

First, there was Peters’ haughty refusal to talk to English and Ardern in the immediate aftermath of the election, on the spurious pretext that he had to wait for special votes to be counted.

Then came the bizarre aura of obsessive secrecy that surrounded the negotiations at Parliament, where officials even went to the point of ensuring that reporters couldn’t get a clear view of the National and Labour teams as they went to and from meetings.

The message to voters couldn’t have been clearer: Once they’ve cast their votes, the doors are slammed shut and the politicians are left to get on with it, unencumbered by any obligation to disclose whatever they might be up to.

Open government? Forget it.

Peters was the only party leader fronting the media, and he lived up to expectations by (a) barking at reporters for their impertinence in wanting to know what was going on, and (b) delivering pronouncements that were minor masterpieces of obfuscation and evasiveness.

Deadlines and time-frames shifted and changed like wisps of smoke. But that’s Peters; nothing he says should ever be taken at face value.

The crowning indignity came when it became apparent that the decision on who would govern us was to be made by an anonymous bunch of non-entities few people even realised existed – the board of New Zealand First.

We should all feel humiliated by this pantomime. A country that could once claim to be a model liberal democracy has been discredited by a flawed electoral system, compounded by Peters’ overweening self-regard and the readiness of the two major party leaders to defer to him.

There is a solution that would avoid these farcical proceedings in future. In our haste to drop the first-past-the-post system in 1993, no one thought to ensure there were rules in place to govern what happened under MMP after the votes were counted.

Peter Dunne has the right idea. He suggests it should be the job of the Governor-General to invite the party that has won the most votes to form a government. If it can’t get the numbers, then an approach should be made to the next-largest party.

The crucial thing is that the Governor-General should control the process. Instead, we’ve handed that power to a huffing and puffing egotist having his last shot at glory via a hole in our constitutional arrangements. Well done us.

Friday, October 20, 2017

A political bastard child

I love the way political commentators are delicately skirting around the inconvenient fact that our new government is one whose formation was driven by a party with only 7 percent popular support. This willingness to ignore the obvious is hardly surprising, The commentariat generally leans to the left and is delirious with pleasure at the anointment – I won’t say election – of a left-leaning government. They don’t want anyone raining on their parade and would prefer to overlook the fact that this is a government with little moral legitimacy. It is a political bastard child and it’s unlikely to grow up happy.

Jim Bolger pointed out on Morning Report this morning that this is the first time that the party that won the most votes isn’t in government. The standard counter-argument from the left, and it’s superficially persuasive, is that the vote for change on September 23 outweighed the vote for the status quo. The problem with this line is that New Zealand First voters wanted change for very different reasons than those who voted for Labour or the Greens. It now suits those parties to claim they are all singing from the same hymn sheet, but the coalition is one born out of pure pragmatism and convenience rather than ideological compatibility. The fundamental differences – especially in areas such as social liberalism, where NZF is the polar opposite of Labour and the Greens – is likely to make this an inherently unstable government.

I like Jacinda Ardern. She has shown in her short time as Labour leader that she has formidable intelligence and political smarts to go with her attractive personality. It’s a winning combination and I believe she could make a very capable prime minister. It’s just a shame that she should attain power in such dodgy circumstances.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Licensing trusts: a great social experiment that mostly failed

(This is a slightly longer version of a story first published in The Dominion Post, October 13.)

It probably comes as a surprise to many people to learn there are still places in New Zealand where it’s not possible to buy wine or beer in a supermarket. Invercargill is one such place. West Auckland is another.

These are not “dry” areas, where local voters have chosen to remain liquor-free. New Zealand lost the last of those (two in Auckland, one in Wellington) in 1999.  

They are, however, a lingering hangover – although that may not be the most appropriate word – from an era when anti-liquor fervour caused legislators to seek a balance between total prohibition and an open-slather alcohol regime where the much-vilified booze barons, the rich men who controlled the liquor trade, would hold sway.

The solution, as prohibitionist sentiment gradually abated and areas that had previously been dry chose to go “wet”, was for voters to be given a choice: they could either allow ownership of liquor outlets by private enterprise, or they could opt for community control.

Under the community control model, voters would elect licensing trusts to run hotels, taverns and bottle stores. Each trust would enjoy a monopoly on liquor sales within its area and profits would be ploughed back into the community.

In a country that remained deeply suspicious of the privately owned liquor trade, the trust option seemed an ideal “third way”. People would have access to alcohol, but its sale would be controlled by elected local representatives who would ensure it was managed responsibly for the community’s benefit.

The first licensing trust was established in Invercargill in 1944, after 38 years as a “dry” city. The Invercargill trust still enjoys a monopoly on liquor sales in that city (other than in clubs and licensed restaurants) because apparently that’s what the community wants. 

Three other trusts – Mataura (also in Southland) and Portage and Waitakere (both in West Auckland) – have retained similar monopoly rights, which explains why mystified visitors to those areas can’t find wine or beer in local supermarkets.

But in all other areas where licensing trusts have survived, voters – often frustrated by lack of choice or disheartened by the trusts’ poor performance – have taken advantage of “competition polls” to strip them of their monopolies. Hence in places like Masterton, trusts are still active in the local liquor trade but must now compete with privately owned bars and liquor outlets, including supermarkets.

A government working party headed by Sir George Laking in the late 1980s recommended that trust monopoly powers, which were out of step with the general trend toward deregulation, should be abolished altogether. But parliament, which was often cautious to the point of timidity on liquor issues, decided that the public should have a choice – hence the competition polls, which gave voters a chance to register their dissatisfaction with trusts that failed to measure up.

The patchy history of the trusts is told in the recently published book A Great Social Experiment, by Bernard Teahan. It’s a story of social and political idealism that often collided disastrously with commercial realities.

Teahan sets the story against a backdrop of wowserism, the deeply ingrained suspicion of alcohol and its purveyors which brought New Zealand to the brink of country-wide prohibition in 1919.

Licensing trusts grew out of dissatisfaction with widespread drunkenness, primitive drinking conditions and distrust of powerful brewing interests. Rex Mason, the reformist Minister of Justice in the Labour government of the 1930s and 40s, threw his weight behind the idea and so did prime minister Peter Fraser, who saw trusts as a way of eliminating profit as the sole motivator of liquor sales. Profit was explicitly not intended to be the trusts’ primary goal.

Masterton followed Invercargill’s lead in 1947 and other trusts were established in quick succession. Between 1947 and 1975, voters in 57 areas backed the creation of trusts, although only 30 became operational. Nineteen are still functioning today.

Teahan records that brewery companies, which effectively controlled the hotel industry, opposed the trust concept every step of the way. The National Party showed little enthusiasm either, although up-and-coming National politician Jack Marshall, a devout Presbyterian who would eventually lead the party, supported trusts and thought they might force brewers to lift their game.

Local councils were often instrumental in getting trusts established. A key figure behind Auckland’s ill-fated Mt Albert trust – which never became operational and was eventually swallowed by the neighbouring Portage trust – was Frank Ryan, long-serving mayor of Mt Albert (and the father of actress and environmental activist Lucy Lawless).

Ironically, as trusts struggled to get established because of inadequate capital and the crippling cost of loan finance, many ended up depending on supportive arrangements with the big two brewery companies – in effect, sleeping with the enemy.

The last functioning trust, Flaxmere (Hastings), was established in 1975. By then the flaws in the trust model were becoming obvious. Even with a monopoly, many were unable to stay afloat.

The enthusiasm and good intentions of the elected boards that controlled trusts were all too rarely matched by the necessary business skills or funding.  Many trusts tested the patience of their communities by taking years to open their first outlets.

One, the Stokes Valley Licensing Trust in Lower Hutt, failed spectacularly after only a year because the Licensing Control Commission required it to provide hotel accommodation where there was no demand for it.

Others over-reached themselves of their own volition, incurring massive debt to build grandiose premises on the basis of wildly over-optimistic business projections. One example was the Orewa trust, north of Auckland, which destroyed a healthy balance sheet by investing heavily in a substantial restaurant where there was no market to support it.

In their desperation to prove themselves, a few trusts resorted to dodgy practices (such as borrowing money without approval) which attracted the attention of the Auditor-General.  Management was often sloppy: Wellington’s Johnsonville trust somehow lost $200,000 worth of stock for which no one was held accountable.

Poor service and sub-standard facilities are other factors cited by Teahan as harmful to the image of the trust movement. Civilised drinking conditions were central to the trust philosophy, yet Teahan describes the Otara trust’s pub in South Auckland as a “dark and dingy barn”, designed to maximise consumption.

Otara also had problems with violence and lawlessness, as did some other trusts. The Porirua trust’s first tavern was known locally as the Flying Jug because of the frequency with which brawls erupted. This was not what the architects of the trust movement had envisaged.

Even Teahan, a true believer in the trust model (he spent most of his career in trust management), acknowledges that trustees and their managers were often not up to the job. Communities grew tired of hearing promises of good things to come, only to be let down when trust-owned outlets closed or another dismal set of financial results was announced - always with a fresh batch of excuses.

By the 1980s, the great social experiment was in peril. A few of the longer-established trusts, having had decades in which to build up a solid base, were strongly embedded in their communities and trading profitably. But changing social expectations and a more liberal and sophisticated drinking environment placed demands on the newer trusts that they were hopelessly ill-equipped to meet.

Teahan says the trust model fell out of favour because “the market philosophy became the all-powerful belief”. But in fact most of the “demised” trusts, to use his own euphemistic terminology for those that failed, were undone by their inability to live up to their idealistic vision.  

Addressing a licensing trusts conference in 1990, former prime minister David Lange described trusts as a bizarre experiment and said they were an endangered species.

He was almost right. Four trusts in the Wellington area subsequently collapsed after years of governance so shambolic and muddle-headed that it became almost painful to watch. Even Teahan is scathing in his criticism of trusts that imploded because of egos, personal whims and political agendas.

The 1990s was also the decade in which competition polls – usually initiated by supermarket chains chafing at their inability to sell wine and beer – began turning the tide against trust monopolies.

Where areas voted to renounce their “dry” status but chose to reject the trust option, as in Auckland’s Grey Lynn and Wellington’s Tawa, Teahan acknowledges that the poor performance of trusts in neighbouring areas was a factor.

Yet the better-managed trusts survive, and a few weaker ones have been saved by being brought under the control of successful operators.

At least one has moved far beyond its original remit. What was originally the Masterton trust (which Teahan managed) is now Trust House, which operates licensed premises on behalf of several trusts and also has substantial investments in social housing, aged care and even supermarkets.

The Invercargill trust, the mother ship, is still flying and seems to enjoy solid support from its community. According to Teahan, the southern city is one place where supermarkets haven’t bothered to push for a competition poll because they don’t think they could win.

Teahan points out that successful trusts return millions of dollars to their communities: nearly $27 million nationwide in 2014.

This is the argument that trusts always fall back on, even when their performance has been dire. It’s what they emphasise whenever their monopolies have been under attack from supermarkets and other private interests.

But much of the money invested in community assets comes from gaming profits which, under law, private hotel and bar owners with gaming facilities must also return to the community.

Teahan retains an almost evangelistic faith in the trust concept despite its many failures. The irony is that his book, which is obviously intended to promote the virtues of trusts, also serves as a crushing indictment of the concept because it can’t avoid acknowledging the many ways in which it was flawed.

A Great Social Experiment: The Story of Licensing Trusts in New Zealand, by Bernard Teahan (Fraser Books, $39.50). 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Pardon me, but this is all arse-about-face

After 21 years and eight general elections, New Zealanders are finally starting to ask some hard questions about MMP.

The current political lacuna demonstrates all that’s worst about the electoral system we adopted in 1993 and put into effect in 1996. The problem is not that everything has come to a standstill while National, Labour and New Zealand First complete the negotiations which will determine who governs us. Other countries routinely experience long periods in political limbo without appearing to suffer great harm.

Neither should we be either surprised or even troubled by the fact that Winston Peters, having declared that everything would be sorted by tomorrow, has now reneged on that assurance. This is par for the course from Peters, who promotes himself as the only honest man in New Zealand politics but has never hesitated to shift his ground or even execute a U-turn when it was expedient to do so.

Peters is, however, central to the reasons why we should be having second thoughts about a political system that enables a man whose party got barely 7 per cent of the votes to determine who the next government will be. Under any circumstances this would be a travesty, but it’s made worse by Peters’ grotesque posturing.

Bizarrely, he behaves as if New Zealanders gave him a mandate on election day. We did no such thing, of course.  The power Peters is exercising at this moment (and so obviously relishing) has nothing to do with the popular will. It was placed in his hands through a quirk of a system that makes a mockery of democracy. A more humble party leader might acknowledge this by pulling his head in, but this is Peters we’re talking about.

In any half-rational political system, it would be the parties which between them won more than 81 percent of the vote, not Peters with his measly share, that determined the course of negotiations. A minor player such as New Zealand First, if it had genuine respect for democracy, would accept that its negotiating strength should be proportionate with its level of popular support. But again, this is Peters we’re talking about. And sadly he’s encouraged in his delusions by both the media, which can’t resist stroking his ego (for example, by calling him the kingmaker), and by the major parties, whose attempts to appease Peters come perilously close to grovelling.

Pardon the expression, but this is all arse-about-face. It’s demeaning to democracy. We’ve heard a lot over the years about the tail-wagging-the-dog scenario under MMP. Well, here it is writ large, and unfolding before our very eyes.

It’s a situation rich in irony. We voted for the introduction of MMP primarily to punish our politicians and bring them to heal. We were fed up with their broken promises. We wanted to make them more accountable.

Only now are New Zealanders realising that we achieved the exact reverse. Voters have no control whatsoever over whatever’s going on right now behind closed doors at Parliament. In effect, we have placed still more power in the hands of the political elites. This is the antithesis of what the promoters of MMP promised (and perhaps naively believed themselves).

It has also dawned on us that there’s a bit a constitutional vacuum around MMP, which means that the politicians are free to play by whatever rules suit them. For example, there’s no obligation on minor parties to negotiate first with whichever party won the biggest share of the vote.

And note the almost paranoiac emphasis on secrecy and confidentiality that surrounds the negotiations, even to the point of parliamentary security officials initially trying to prevent reporters seeing who was on the negotiating teams. So much for transparency. The last thing the politicians want is for the people who elected them to know what decisions are being made on their behalf. They couldn’t be more brazen about the fact that the public is locked out of the game. We’re not even impotent spectators. It’s particularly ironic that Peters, who has presented himself throughout his political career as a man of the people, a party leader who refuses to play by the rules of the self-serving political establishment, should be at the very centre of all this.

Nothing I say here should be interpreted as a call for a return to the first-past-the-post system. But it’s time to face up to the fact that we replaced one imperfect system with another that was equally flawed, and at the very least we should be having a national conversation about whether there may be a better way.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Mr 7.5 Percent makes the most of his intoxicating moment in the spotlight

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 6.)

As is well known, the MMP electoral system was created to ensure, as far as possible, that no party ended up wielding absolute power.

So far you’d have to say it has worked exactly as intended. In the eight elections since New Zealand adopted MMP, no one party has won an absolute majority. They have all had to compromise and negotiate with smaller coalition partners.

Now we find ourselves in the same position again. It should be familiar by now, yet something seems not quite right. What could it be?

Oh, that’s right – Winston Peters, the 7.5 Percent Man, is back in the mix, and making the most of his intoxicating moment in the spotlight.

He said he was out of phone range when Bill English called last Sunday. But what sort of party leader goes bush, leaving his phone unattended, when he’s in the hot seat and the country is waiting for a government to be formed?

Then there was his excuse that he was waiting for the 384,000 special votes to come in, as if these had the potential to skew the election night result by such an order of magnitude that any preliminary negotiations with other parties would be futile.

Peters wanted us to think he was delaying showing his hand out of respect for democracy, but I don’t think anyone was fooled. We’ve seen it all before.

If he truly respected democracy, he would acknowledge that his party pulled a measly 7.5 per cent of the vote and stop behaving like some sort of vainglorious potentate from Berzerkistan. Heck, he couldn’t even retain his own seat.

But this is Peters we’re talking about. The “h” word that comes between “humidify” and “hummingbird” in most dictionaries apparently doesn’t exist in the edition on Peters’ bookshelf.

Perhaps MMP works best when you have politicians who are prepared to be conciliatory, to compromise and to make concessions. The Germans seem to manage it.

Unfortunately, Peters is not one of those politicians. Bluster and demagoguery, rather than consensus, is his default setting.

Politically, he’s a living fossil: a relic of Muldoonism, with all its bullying, divisiveness and ad hoc state interventionism. From the time he first entered Parliament in 1978, his career has been marked by fractiousness and petulance. He is a settler of scores and a bearer of grudges.

Some of his policy ideas – reinstating the old Forest Service, introducing a police “flying squad”, legislating to ensure free-to-air coverage of major sporting events – appear designed to exploit the nostalgic yearning of his ageing supporters for New Zealand the way they remember it.

Peters is a political Doctor Who, inviting us to join him in the Tardis for a trip back to a simpler time when an all-powerful state pretended it could solve complex problems with the pull of a lever. Look where that got us.

I said at the start of this column that MMP is working exactly as intended. Does this mean it’s a good system? Not at all. It’s a dog that replaced a turkey.

We weren’t sure at the time that we wanted a dog. All we knew is that we desperately wanted to get rid of the turkey, and a highly motivated lobbying campaign convinced us – by a less than overwhelming majority, incidentally – that the dog would do the job better.

And so we ended up with a system in which a vain and egotistical politician whose party got 7.5 per cent of the vote determines who the next government will be; and where every solemn pledge made during the election campaign is now up for negotiation in a secret process that voters have no control over or input into.

We could, however, do a few things to make the best of a bad situation. For one thing, the media could stop stoking Peters’ already rampant ego by not giving him daily opportunities to grandstand. And let’s stop treating the post-election guessing game as some sort of diverting spectator sport or reality TV show. We’re talking about the future of the country, for heaven’s sake.

Oh, and here’s another suggestion that might negate the Peters problem altogether.

You’d think that if any party “got” MMP, it would be the Greens. But at the very suggestion of a deal with National, they clutch at their skirts like startled virgins.

Well, Labour has never invited them into bed. If promiscuity is the price for getting some runs on the board, perhaps they should forget about virtue and get their knickers off.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

We were sold a crock in 1993

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, October 4).

Anyone having second thoughts about MMP?

I’ve argued for years that we swapped one set of flaws for another when we voted in 1993 to change the electoral system. The events of the past 10 days have done nothing to reverse that perception.

An obvious problem with the old first-past-the-post system was that a party could win power even without a majority of votes, since it was the number of parliamentary seats won, rather than total votes, that determined who governed.

Thus National got fewer votes than Labour in 1978 and 1981 yet remained in government – a situation analogous with last year’s presidential election in the United States, in which Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump but was unsuccessful because Trump prevailed in a majority of states.

The other main reason for dissatisfaction with our version of FPP was that third parties never got a look in. Even with 21 per cent of the vote, the now-defunct Social Credit party won only two seats in the 92-seat Parliament in 1981. 

But it wasn’t so much dissatisfaction with the undemocratic nature of the FFP system that caused voters to rebel against it in the 1990s. After all, we’d been happy with it for 90 years. Besides, it’s still practised in Britain, Canada and the US.

No, what really enabled agitators for electoral reform to gain traction was the widespread perception that once in power, parties reneged on promises and generally couldn’t be trusted to do what voters had asked for.

The theory was that by denying absolute power to any one party – in effect, requiring parties to negotiate and compromise on key policies – the MMP system would force governments to become more accountable and consensus-driven.

A bonus was that by giving greater power to minor parties, MMP would deliver more diverse representation in Parliament.

At least that was the theory, and to some extent it has been proved right.

Under MMP, we have certainly had far more diverse parliaments.  The two-party duopoly has been broken, opening the way for a much wider range of ideological positions and agendas to be represented in Parliament, from the old-style populist Muldoonism of New Zealand First through to the environmentally driven Greens and the race-based sectional interests of the Maori Party.

But has MMP delivered greater accountability, as its idealistic (and mostly left-wing) promoters promised? Hmmm. That’s another matter entirely.

Here we encounter two problems. The first is that under MMP, 49 of the 121 MPs in Parliament are not directly accountable to voters. They are elected on the all-important party lists and have no constituents to answer to.

Rather, they owe their loyalty to the party organisation, on which they depend for their ranking on the lists and therefore for their career prospects. In other words, it’s system that prioritises loyalty to the party over any obligations to voters. Accountability? Pffft.

But arguably an even bigger flaw is the one that we again see in play following the recent election.

Not for the first time, New Zealand finds itself at the mercy of New Zealand First and its vain and fractious leader, Winston Peters. A man whose party won only 7.5 per cent of the vote on election day will determine who governs us for the next three years.

Whatever this is, it’s not democracy. It’s a travesty, and it’s made worse by Peters’ egotistical posturing.

The New Zealand First leader failed to respond to a phone call on Sunday night from National leader Bill English, whose party won six times more support than his own, Although Peters did return the call the following day, I believe he was letting English know who’s boss.

But even without a rogue politician like Peters in the mix, the system is deeply – perhaps fatally – flawed. Because regardless of the result on election day, all bets are off once the votes are in.

At that stage the public cedes total control to the politicians, who disappear behind closed doors to decide which of the policies they campaigned on can be jettisoned and which bottom lines no longer matter. We, the voters, have no power to influence what concessions will be made in coalition negotiations.

Whatever this is, it’s not democracy. Accountability? Pffft again.

The almost comical paradox is that the MMP system, which supposedly returned power to the people, is virtually guaranteed to produce a result where one or more minor parties end up wielding influence grossly disproportionate to their public support, and where politicians have carte blanche to wheel and deal without reference to the public.

Apologists for MMP (former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer is one) continue to make excuses for its failings and to pretend that it’s fit for purpose.

The politicians have become thoroughly acclimatised to it too and either fail to see, or don’t want to see, its fatal flaws. But I reckon we were sold a crock in 1993, and I want my money back.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Post-election hiatus illustrates the perversity of MMP

(First published in The Spectator Australia, September 30).

The only thing that can be said with any certainty about the next New Zealand government is that it will look very different from the last one.

National party prime minister Bill English won an emphatic 13-seat majority over the opposition Labour party at the weekend in an election result that defied the pattern of history. But the vagaries of New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional electoral system mean it could be weeks before the shape of the new government is finalised, and no one can be sure what form it will take. Paradoxically, it may not include the National party.

Not for the first time, New Zealand finds itself at the mercy of the relatively small New Zealand First party (yes, it’s as nationalistic as the name implies) and its fractious leader, Winston Peters. That’s because despite winning 46 percent of the vote on election day, National doesn’t have the numbers to govern on its own. Three of the minnow parties that supported the government in its previous term crashed and burned, forcing English to look elsewhere for a deal that will give him a parliamentary majority.

That unavoidably leads him to Peters’ door, since the support of New Zealand First’s nine MPs would enable English to form a government. But the two parties of the centre-left, Labour and the Greens, are also courting Peters because his support would give them a one-seat majority – perhaps more, once 384,000 special votes are counted.

That puts Peters in the box seat, which is exactly where he likes to be. He will, in effect, determine the shape of the next government. No one knows what price he will demand in return for this, or what concessions the bigger parties will be prepared to make in order to humour him. Strangely, neither does anyone question the morality of a political system that allows a party leader to wield influence grossly disproportionate to his party’s share of the vote (7.5 percent).  But Peters can be expected to make the most of the situation. At 72, it may be his last shot at power.

It’s a situation that illustrates the perversity of the MMP system. Adopted in 1996 and modelled on the electoral system created in post-war Germany to ensure that no extremist party could again win total power as the Nazis did, MMP was promoted to Kiwi voters as a means of reasserting control over rogue politicians. In fact it turned out to be every bit as flawed as the first-past-the-post system it replaced.

Under MMP, voters are shut out of the game the moment the votes are in. Unless one party has an absolute majority, which hasn’t happened in any of the eight elections since MMP was introduced, the politicians then disappear behind closed doors to do whatever furtive horse-trading is necessary to cut a deal.

At that point, all bets are off. Every policy dangled in front of voters during the election campaign is effectively up for negotiation. What were solemnly declared on the campaign trail to be bottom lines become wondrously elastic or evaporate altogether. Voters have no influence over this process and can only await the outcome.

It doesn’t help that there are no clear constitutional conventions governing coalition arrangements. There’s a compelling moral argument that minor parties should first offer their support to whichever party has won the greatest number of votes. In this instance, that would clearly be National.

But politicians are free to interpret the rules in whichever way suits them. Labour and the Greens rationalise that because more people voted against National than voted for it, there’s a mandate for change – although it’s hard to imagine a potentially more fractured and dysfunctional coalition than one between Labour, the Greens and the socially conservative Peters party.

New Zealand has found itself in this predicament before, and it’s not a comfortable place to be. By instinct Peters is an attack politician, which helps explain why previous coalitions he has been part of – one with National, one with Labour – have ended acrimoniously.

He’s a true maverick: combative, polarising and capricious. He relies for support on a dwindling constituency of ageing voters who yearn for the reassuring certainties of the New Zealand they remember from the 1970s under authoritarian National prime minister Robert Muldoon, Peters’ role model. It was an era when New Zealand was comfortably monocultural and subject to suffocating state regulation.

So while English was nominally a clear winner on election night, he now has to curry favour with a politician whose support is smaller than National’s by a factor of six. He may even end up in opposition. It takes some of the shine off what was, in most respects, a signal victory.

English’s success was notable for two reasons. Conventional political wisdom decreed that the tide had gone out for National, since no New Zealand government had won a fourth term since 1969. A late resurgence by Labour, re-energised under its popular new leader Jacinda Ardern, reinforced a sense that New Zealand might be about to revert to the historical norm.

But English, the Catholic son of a South Island farming family, not only swam against the current of history. He also emerged from the shadow of former prime minister John Key, under whom he served as deputy and finance minister until Key’s surprise resignation last December.

In the Key government, English did the heavy lifting behind the scenes while the supposedly more charismatic Key took care of the public charm offensive. Although credited with guiding New Zealand safely through the global financial crisis, English wasn’t seen as either charismatic or populist. He partly reversed that perception during an election campaign in which he came across as genial and relaxed. But more important than that, he has erased the notion that National’s success in three elections was entirely due to Key’s personal popularity.

It would seem a cruelly ironic blow if, after accomplishing that, he ended up on the opposition benches putting questions to a 37-year-old Labour prime minister who has never held a cabinet post or even served in government. But under New Zealand’s topsy-turvy electoral system, and with a politician as contrary and unpredictable as Peters in the mix, it can’t be ruled out. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

History is on Labour's side in this election

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 22.)

Phew, what an election campaign. Voters’ heads must be spinning from the daily blizzard of policy announcements and extravagant promises, most of which involve spending large sums of our own money. Only the most nerdish political obsessives will have kept track of them all.

Another reason to be grateful when the campaign is over is that we’ll be spared those cringe-inducing nightly news reports in which the party leaders appear on camera flanked by the local candidates – or in Bill English’s case, cabinet ministers – slavishly nodding in agreement with whatever the boss says.

Presumably it doesn’t occur to them that they look mindlessly servile. This is one campaign ritual that the party image minders would be well advised to ditch.

The campaign has been intense, the more so because of the topsy-turvy polls, but it has remained generally good-natured. Jacinda Ardern’s relentlessly sunny disposition was put to the test as journalists started asking hard questions about Labour policies that hadn’t been satisfactorily explained, but we didn’t see her crack. It was an impressive feat of self-control for a leader who hasn’t previously experienced the white heat of the campaign trail.

Overall, she’s had a good campaign. But so has English, who has looked more relaxed than we’ve seen him before. Both leaders give the impression of having genuinely enjoyed themselves.

Taking his wife along wouldn’t have harmed English’s prospects. Mary English is personable, mixes easily, and being part-Samoan she’s an effective counter to the perception that National is the party of old, white New Zealand.

For her part, Ardern seems to have been accompanied everywhere on the campaign trail by Annette King – an unusual strategy, given that King’s stepping down, but a shrewd one. Of all Labour’s old hands, King is arguably the most universally liked and non-threatening. Her presence will have been reassuring to voters worried about the influence of radical ideologues in Labour’s ranks.

So, which way will the voters go?

History is on Labour’s side. Only one National government has won a fourth term – the one led by Keith Holyoake in 1969, which squeaked back into power by a very narrow majority. Labour leader Norman Kirk blamed his party’s defeat on the prolonged Wainui shipping dispute, which stoked public concerns about militant unionism and inevitably reflected unfavourably on Labour.

There are no such factors to help National this time. The party does, however, go into the election with a record of sound economic management. Few, if any, Western economies came through the global financial crisis in better shape.

Will that be enough to save National? It’s hard for a three-term government to look fresh and visionary, the more so when voters have seen the same ministerial faces defending the same policies for nine years. And it’s much tougher for a government to defend its record than it is for opposition parties to attack it.

As former National deputy leader Wyatt Creech has pointed out, when a party has been in power for nine years, niggles and annoyances build up. He calls it the death of a thousand cuts.

John Key no doubt saw this coming and with the same instinct and sense of timing that made him a masterful foreign exchange trader, got out while he was ahead.

The historical pattern is for National governments to serve three terms, gradually running out of puff as they go. The voters, observing the growing fatigue and complacency, then elect a Labour government fizzing with energy and reformist zeal.

Sometimes Labour crashes and burns, as in 1975 and 1990, but in the meantime the country’s political settings have undergone an irreversible reboot. Despite Wednesday night’s poll result, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this may be about to happen again.

English may come to regret not having been more adventurous in bringing new talent forward at the expense of his friends. His mate Nick Smith, for example, long ago ceased to sound convincing as Environment Minister and should have been dropped. Jonathan Coleman is similarly unpersuasive defending National’s health record. These are areas where National is vulnerable.

But all this may ultimately be neither here nor there. The election result may ultimately come down to something as basic and irrational as the natural human desire to try something new – and Ardern, with her relative youth and appealing personality, appears to be the right person to harness that mood.

Former National prime minister Jim Bolger pointed out this week that personality doesn’t pay the bills, or words to that effect. But Bolger, as a shrewd judge of politics, knows that personality can sway election results. We saw that with Key.

Bolger also stressed the importance of experience in government. Ardern has none – but neither did David Lange, and that didn’t stop the electorate from seeing him as a desirable alternative to Robert Muldoon.

Will the election come down to essentially a two-horse race, as English suggested this week? The polls certainly present a confusing picture on the state of the minor parties.

It’s possible that both New Zealand First and the Greens have duffed their chances. Winston Peters took a big punt with his refusal to take part in a TV debate with the other minor parties, and I hope it backfires. It was an act of supreme arrogance which suggested Peters thinks he’s above the drudgery of having to explain or defend his party’s policies.

For their part, the Greens don’t just have to recover from the Metiria Turei fiasco. Their core message of environmental health is one that resonates with many New Zealanders, even conservatives, but the Greens have muddied their brand by pushing “social justice” issues that are ideologically more contentious.

A final thought: if it’s a close result, as seems likely, how about a grand coalition between the two major parties?

National and Labour have at least as much in common with each other as they do with some of their idiosyncratic smaller potential coalition partners. They are both led by competent, likeable politicians who appear to respect each other.

It won’t happen of course. Old tribal enmities run too deep on both sides. But it’s a fascinating possibility to contemplate. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Trump: the dog that keeps barking long after the car has stopped

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, Sept 20.)

I’ve been trying to make sense of Donald Trump. It’s not easy.

It’s now 10 months since he was elected president of the United States and eight since he was inaugurated – time enough, you’d think, to prove that he’s fit for office.

I know people who have defended him throughout that time and continue to insist that he’s the man for the job. I've given them the benefit of the doubt and waited for some evidence that they were right. I thought that perhaps they saw something in him that I couldn’t see.

Besides, the contrarian in me instinctively rebels when I see the weight of public and media opinion so overwhelmingly arrayed against one person. Mass groupthink carries its own risks.

But here we are, almost one-quarter of the way through the Trump presidency, and I no see sign that his critics are anything but correct.

Hillary Clinton is hardly an impartial judge, but I believe she was on the mark when she recently described Trump as “immature, with poor impulse control”.

She went on to say that the president has a limited understanding of the world. “Everything is in relation to how it makes him feel.” My own impression is that he’s a man who has probably never read a book.

One of the striking things about Trump is that he behaves as if he’s still in campaign mode. In his tweets and at his rallies, he rants and blusters just as he did when he was contesting the presidency. He’s still fighting the same enemies.

It’s as if he didn’t give much thought to what he would actually do if he found himself in the Oval Office. Perhaps he never seriously expected it. 

He’s like the dog that chases cars and doesn’t know what to do after they’ve stopped, so just keeps barking. I keep waiting for someone to take him aside and gently explain that he’s the president now, and that people expect him to behave presidentially.

It may be significant that the only major policy initiatives Trump has ticked off so far involved undoing things – namely, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord, both of which he’s pulled out of.

Otherwise he doesn’t appear to have achieved any of the key policy objectives that he campaigned on.

There's no sign of The Wall and attempts to roll back Obamacare turned into a fiasco. He has back-pedalled on some promises – America’s military commitment in Afghanistan, for example – and substantially watered down others. On the deportation of “illegals”, he’s all over the place.

He seems to have little respect for either truth or consistency. He will say whatever occurs to him at any particular moment, but thinks nothing of doing a handbrake turn later. As some commentators have pointed out, he doesn’t appear to be guided by any coherent ideology.

He promised to be a man of action, but the supposedly forgotten Americans who voted for him must feel betrayed and disappointed. Trump has delivered mainly chaos and uncertainty.

In the meantime, the White House has been in a state of almost constant turmoil. Key appointees come and go like pizza delivery boys.

The most entertaining of these bum appointments was the spectacularly brash Anthony Scaramucci, who roared in like a hurricane, promptly got offside with crucial people and was fired – all in the space of 10 days.

Those who have clung on, including members of Trump’s extended family, have reportedly been in a state of war as the Trump purists – the reformist zealots bent on re-inventing the way Washington does politics – vie for influence with those advocating a more pragmatic, conventional line.

The Republican Party is in disarray and Trump has been publicly at odds with such respected party grandees as former presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney.  

This is an incredibly disruptive and destabilising way to conduct affairs of state, and it’s not only Americans who should be worried. The frightening brinkmanship currently being played out between Washington and Pyongyang is a sobering reminder of the possible consequences if Trump were to make a reckless call. The rest of the world can only hope that wiser minds would restrain him.

Through all of this, Trump has behaved like the braggart and buffoon that his detractors always said he was. But how could that be? Underneath all that vulgarian bluster, there must surely be an intelligent man. I mean, a stupid man could never have become that rich.

Or could he? I have a theory that some dumb people succeed in business because they are so blinded by greed that they don’t see the potential downsides of the big risks they take. They might experience embarrassing failures along the way (as Trump has) but it’s always possible that sheer greed and gall will pull them through.

In any case, success in business is no guarantee of success in politics. Trump comes from a world where he was the boss and expected everyone around him to do his bidding.

Politics is different. Politics is messier. Politics works through compromise, consensus and collaboration. Trump shows no sign of being able to make that transition.

The question is, will he last a full term, or will Congress tire of the whole demeaning pantomime and find a way, consistent with the Constitution (perhaps the 25th Amendment, which has never been put to the test), to get rid of him? No doubt some of America’s finest minds are working on this question even as I write.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Why journalistic objectivity is vital in a democracy

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 8.)

What a civilised election campaign this has been – so far, anyway. And what a contrast with the firestorms of 2014, when Nicky Hager and Kim Dotcom did their best to skew the election result.

To their credit, the voters paid no attention to the noisy distractions. They took the phone off the hook.

Eric Crampton, chief economist at free-market think tank the New Zealand Initiative (and a Canadian), wrote in a recent essay that New Zealand is the world’s last sane place, and he could be right.

Admittedly Crampton was mainly talking about economic factors and freedom from heavy-handed state intervention in people’s lives, but his description could equally be applied to the way we generally conduct our political affairs.

I remember watching a television debate in 1973 between the Labour and National leaders, Norm Kirk and Jack Marshall. It was such a relaxed and cordial encounter that I half expected the moderator – I think it was Ian Johnstone – to produce a flagon of DB and pour them a beer.

Monday night’s debate between Bill English and Jacinda Ardern wasn’t quite that cosy, but it was a mutually respectful contest between two basically decent people who want the best for their country.

Even the studio audience seemed admirably even-handed. We should be proud to live in such a mature democracy.

Sure, the campaign has had its moments of high drama. And elections are always polarising, the more so when you factor in the angry buzzing on social media, which amplifies ideological differences.

Besides, New Zealand politics hasn’t always been so good-tempered. The 1984 campaign, when Robert Muldoon was fighting for his political life, comes to mind. With Muldoon, there was always an undercurrent of menace – a feeling that you never knew quite what he was capable of, if pushed.

But back to that 1973 television debate. I had been living in Australia at the time and was struck by the contrast between our style of politics and that of our neighbours across the Ditch.

Everything about Australian politics was, and still is, more extreme and combative. Their conservatives are more reactionary, their radical lefties more doctrinaire, their factional powerbrokers more ruthless and their mavericks more unhinged.

Even when Australia’s not in election mode, its politics are far more febrile and polarised than ours. Right now the country is on the point of combusting over same-sex marriage, with the gay rights lobby using all manner of spurious arguments to torpedo a government proposal that would – heaven forbid – give voters a say on the issue.

It doesn’t help that the Australian news media are highly politicised, with the major Fairfax papers and the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation actively taking a left-leaning line while the Murdoch-owned Australian adopts a conservative position. People who complain of media bias here don’t know the half of it.

The danger to democracy of journalists taking sides is amply illustrated by a recent article in which the editor of the leftist Guardian Australia, Lenore Taylor, made it clear she wouldn’t be giving editorial space to opponents of same-sex marriage because … well, because she didn’t agree with them.

Here, laid bare, is the logical consequence of the insidious notion that the principle of “objectivity” in journalism is a myth and therefore can be disregarded.

Objectivity means, among other things, an obligation to be even-handed in the presentation of news. This concept has underpinned mainstream journalism for decades, but journalism textbooks and tutors now teach that “balance” gets in the way of truth-telling and serves the interests of the rich and powerful.

The result is that many journalists (who tend, by instinct, to have leftist sympathies) now feel they have licence to ignore anything that doesn’t align with their own views.

Objectivity serves as a vital check against abuse of media power, because the moment journalists take it on themselves to decide which opinions are fit for public consumption, democracy is in trouble.

New Zealand isn’t immune from this trend, as is obvious from the increasingly common usage by journalists of loaded words such as “sexist”, “racist” and “misogynist” to dismiss views they don’t approve of. But it’s not happening on the same scale, and certainly nowhere near as brazenly, as in Australia, where the media are up to their armpits in partisan politics.

The implications, if the principle of objectivity is abandoned, don’t need to be spelled out. Democracy depends on people casting an informed vote, and once news organisations start withholding information they don’t like, the liberal democracy model that we’re now seeing in action is at risk. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The steady creep of intolerance and bigotry

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, September 6.)

While the nation’s attention has been occupied by political drama and the election campaign, other things – serious things – have been going on almost unnoticed.

Last week, students at Auckland University voted to “disaffiliate” – “expel” would be a more honest word – a students’ anti-abortion group, ProLife Auckland. You don’t have to be opposed to abortion (as I am) to find this attack on free speech ominous.

A spokeswoman for Auckland Students for Choice, a women’s rights group that pushed for a referendum on the issue, said the pro-lifers were “an embarrassment”.

Clearly, groups that campaign to save unborn children are ideologically unfashionable, so must be discouraged by all means possible.

Overseas this phenomenon is known as “no platforming” – denying a voice to people you disagree with. This is rampant on university campuses in Britain and the United States and it’s lamentable that the practice has shown up here.

But it was probably inevitable, given that universities throughout the western world have been ideologically captured and no longer bother to maintain the pretence that they promote freedom of speech and robust intellectual debate. Yet democracy is built around the contestability of ideas, as the current election campaign reminds us.

The pro-life student group was accused of “propagating harmful misinformation”. If this phrase has an uncomfortably familiar ring, it may be because it’s similar to the language used by totalitarian regimes to silence dissidents before packing them off to re-education (read “punishment”) camps.

Ironically, if anyone could be accused of propagating misinformation, it was those campaigning to banish the pro-life group.The debate was misleadingly framed as being about misogyny – a word now used to marginalise anyone who dares to express a view that’s at odds with feminist orthodoxy. But wanting to save unborn children isn’t remotely synonymous with hatred of women. Only a seriously warped ideology could equate the two.

The students’ decision means that while the pro-lifers will theoretically still be able to organise on campus, the referendum result – 1600 in favour of “disaffiliation”, 1000 against – tilts the playing field heavily against them by denying them access to funding and resources available to other activist groups through the Auckland University Students’ Association.

But what matters more is the symbolism of the decision, and the message it sends. By expelling the group, the association has signalled its willingness to shut out voices that are deemed ideologically unacceptable.

It is a chilling example of the steady creep of intolerance and bigotry through the institutions of higher learning. I can do no better than quote a recent speech in which John Etchemendy, a former provost (the equivalent of our vice-chancellor) of California’s illustrious Stanford University, referred to an “intellectual monoculture” taking hold in American universities.

Etchemendy said he had observed a growing intolerance in universities – not intolerance along racial, ethnic or gender lines, but “a kind of political intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for”.

This, he said, was reflected in demands to “disinvite” speakers and outlaw groups whose views were considered offensive. The result, according to Etchemendy, was an intellectual blindness which led to anyone with opposing views being written off as “evil or ignorant or stupid”.

He might have added “embarrassing”, the contemptuous term used by the young feminist zealot interviewed on the Stuff website about the Auckland pro-lifers.

Being young, she is consumed by idealism. She will probably have been influenced by politically correct teachers and lecturers. It may not have occurred to her that once a society makes it permissible to suppress views that some people don’t like, the genie is out of the bottle and the power to silence unfashionable opinions can be turned against anyone, depending on whichever ideology happens to be prevalent at the time.

But the Auckland student referendum isn’t the only unsettling thing to have happened in recent weeks. Last month the Charities Registration Board announced that it refused to recognise the conservative lobby group Family First as a charity, which means donations to the organisation would not be tax deductible.

The board made this decision on the basis that Family First “did not advance exclusively charitable purposes”.  This was essentially a re-affirmation of a decision it had made previously, but which it was forced to reconsider following a court ruling.

To be fair, Family First is primarily a lobby group. But hang on a minute: so are the Child Poverty Action Group and Greenpeace, both of which enjoy charitable status.

The same could be said of Oxfam New Zealand, which has morphed into a political activist organisation but still qualifies as a charity because it cleverly combines its activism with what you might call old-fashioned charitable work.

One rule for groups promoting “progressive” causes, but another for organisations that take a socially conservative position? That’s how it looks to me. What we are witnessing, I believe is the gradual squeezing out of conservative voices as that monoculture steadily extends its reach.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

My brother's last months weren't easy, but now he's where he would have wanted to be

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 25.)

My beloved older brother Justin died a year ago today. We buried his ashes last Saturday in the Waipukurau Cemetery.

It was a simple but moving ceremony – a fitting final act in an exemplary life that touched many people.

It was a therapeutic occasion too, because it helped erase memories of the last months of Justin’s life. These were not easy.

He and his family had been on a roller-coaster for months: in and out of Wellington Hospital, subjected to endless tests and scans and in constant, acute pain whose source proved hard to identify.

Surgeons eventually removed an infection of his prostate and at the same time took out a section of cancerous bowel that had been found by chance.

For a short time the prognosis looked good. We thought the cause of Justin’s suffering had been found and dealt with.

But the pain continued, accompanied by a debilitating weight loss that suggested there was something else going on that the doctors hadn’t found. 

Justin never showed a trace of self-pity, but there were times when he did get frustrated. He was an optimist by nature, and grateful for the care he was given, but toward the end his faith in the system was eroded. A bewildering number of surgeons and doctors came and went. The messages he was getting were conflicting and confusing.

Justin suspected his illness was related to a treatment called brachytherapy, which he had received privately four years earlier for prostate cancer. When eventually he got to see one of the specialists who had administered the brachytherapy, he was assured his sickness was unrelated. But the doubt lingered.

Eventually he was diagnosed with high-grade urothelial cancer. This was revealed to him out of the blue one morning when he was re-admitted to Wellington Hospital in acute pain.

The diagnosis had been made on June 27 but he wasn’t told until July 30. The doctor who broke the news to him did so almost casually, assuming he already knew.

Whether the time lag reduced his life prospects, I don’t know, but logic tells me it must have. It seemed that a vital window of opportunity had been lost.

A major operation was scheduled. Surgery to remove Justin’s bladder, prostate and urethra was expected to take eight hours. It was made clear this was a life-threatening procedure in his weakened state, but it was a risk he and the family were prepared to take. 

We all gathered, hoping for the best but prepared for the worst. Then, early on the morning of the scheduled surgery, Justin was told the operation wouldn’t proceed because there was no intensive care bed available for him when he came out.

It was a crushing blow. I think Justin gave up all hope that morning. He no longer trusted the doctors to tell him the truth. He just wanted to go home.

In the emotion of the moment, we wondered whether the doctors had been stringing us along – that perhaps the lack of a recovery bed was a convenient excuse for not going ahead with an operation that had little prospect of success in the first place.

Maybe they thought they were being kind letting Justin think the operation might save him, when in fact it would have been less cruel to tell him what seemed the obvious truth: “There’s nothing more we can do – you’re dying.”

By coincidence, the day before the operation was scheduled, we bumped into a respected senior medical specialist whom I happened to know. When we explained why we were at the hospital and what we had been told would happen to Justin the following morning, he gave us a knowing look and made a comment that I didn’t quite understand.

It was only later that we realised he had been trying to suggest, without actually saying so, that perhaps his colleagues weren’t being entirely honest with my brother.

So Justin went home to die, and now he’s at rest in the town where he spent his formative years before he moved to Wellington, to a career in broadcasting that was to make him a much-loved presence in Wellington households over several decades.

He’s buried in the same plot as his older brother Martin. Our parents lie next to them and another older brother, Peter, who drowned in 1958, is only a couple of metres away.

I can think of far worse places to spend eternity. The cemetery is on an elevated site sloping gently to the west, with a pleasing outlook toward Pukeora Hill and the Ruahine Range beyond. Justin’s widow, Judy, and the rest of his family are satisfied it’s where he would have wanted to be.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Looks like we've got ourselves an election campaign

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, August 23.)

It’s hard to recall a more dramatic – you might even say enthralling – election campaign. And there’s still a month to go.

Last time around, there was the noise and smoke surrounding Kim Dotcom and Nicky Hager. But that was manufactured drama, and voters were unmoved. This election is different. The drama is real.

A former British prime minister, Harold Wilson, famously said that a week was a long time in politics. That may have been true in the 1960s, but time frames have been greatly compressed.

Media scrutiny of politics and monitoring by pollsters is now so merciless and unrelenting that the landscape can be transformed in hours.

Politicians have lost the ability to control events. Developments wash over them almost faster than they can react. Politics has turned manic.

Less than a month ago the election looked drearily predictable: a contest between two major parties led by worthy but unexciting middle-aged men.

National seemed to be cruising on auto-pilot toward a comfortable majority over Labour, so interest centred on what was happening on the political fringes.

Would Winston Peters end up in the driver’s seat again? Would the Greens finally get their feet under the Cabinet table? Would voters in Ohariu jettison the long-serving Peter Dunne? (He’s now taken that decision out of their hands.) Was the Maori Party in trouble? Would Gareth Morgan’s out-of-left-field initiative resonate with voters?

If there was going to be drama, it would come after the election when the political horse-trading started. Or so it seemed.

Then Andrew Little quit as Labour leader, his hand forced by dire opinion polls.

It was a huge risk. History suggests that changing leaders when an election is imminent is suicidal. It looks desperate.

But Jacinda Ardern’s bloodless accession to the Labour leadership had a galvanising effect that few people could have anticipated. Ardern’s relative lack of exposure to high-level politics could have been a handicap, but turned out to be an asset.

Critics could rightly point out that she didn’t have a lot to show for her years in politics and had never really been tested under pressure, but this also meant she came to the job untainted. And it seemed that the public was prepared to give her a go.

Her performance has been hard to fault. She’s relaxed and smiley, so people naturally warm to her. But she’s also composed and articulate when answering journalists’ questions, and she hits that sweet spot between confidence and arrogance.

She appeared to deal firmly with Labour MP Chris Hipkins over his ill-advised involvement in an Australian domestic political issue (is there a hint of Helen Clark steel under that sunny exterior?), and the outburst from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who pompously said she couldn’t trust a New Zealand Labour government, will have done Ardern no harm at all.

In fact quite the contrary, since New Zealanders have had enough of Australian bullying and condescension.

Ardern’s succession also had the important effect of re-energising the Labour Party and restoring morale. But perhaps most important of all, she’s new, and there’s a sense that voters are ready for a fresh face.

In one respect, she has history on her side. If there’s a recurring pattern in New Zealand politics, it’s that National governments serve three terms before voters decide that the party is looking tired and complacent and it’s time to give someone else a shot.

It happened to the National governments of 1949-1957, 1975-1984 and 1990-1999. The exception was the Holyoake administration of the 1960s, which won four terms. Going by that precedent, National’s time is up.

Is Ardern up to the job of prime minister? We don’t know.

That’s something Labour is inviting the country to take a punt on. But given the international mood for political change, and an apparent willingness to leap into the unknown (Donald Trump, Brexit, Emmanuel Macron), voters may be willing to risk it.

The point is, National suddenly looks wobbly. Labour has come up with little that’s new in terms of policy, yet it has risen in the polls to the point where it’s looking like a serious contender, and Ardern is level-pegging with Bill English in the preferred prime minister stakes.

National has started scattering election lollies, which always looks a bit panicky, and some of its friends have turned against it. When centre-right commentator Matthew Hooton attacks National for being lazy and complacent, you know it’s in trouble.

We have a genuine election campaign on our hands. It’s striking evidence of the potential for a mere change of face to change the political dynamic.

And now Dunne, a key government support partner, has gone, which will give National even more reason to feel uneasy. You have to wonder, what next?

In the meantime, of course, there’s been even greater drama in the Greens. They have been damaged not only by Metiria Turei’s spectacular fall from grace, but also by vicious internal recriminations that revealed an ugly side of the party that the public hadn’t seen before.

I almost feel sorry for them. It’s not long since North and South magazine devoted its cover to a glossy, Vanity Fair-style photo featuring some of the party’s most attractive young candidates. It looked like a fashion shoot. No party has ever assembled a more photogenic slate.

The magazine’s website promoted the issue with the line: “The Greens as you’ve never seen them before”. With Turei’s undignified exit and the subsequent blood-letting, that line acquired a whole new meaning.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Apologise and retract? Not bloody likely

Several weeks ago I wrote a newspaper column that was republished on this blog under the heading The self-righteous rage of the Left. I referred to anti-G20 riots in Hamburg and a violent pro-government mob that attacked opposition MPs in Venezuela and I asked why, when political violence had so often been associated in the past with the extreme Right, it was now commonly perpetrated by the Left.

I didn’t just use overseas examples. I pointed out that in New Zealand, although we rarely experience overt political violence, it’s the Left that assumes a moral right to disrupt events that they don’t approve of or to howl down opinions they don’t like. Occasional direct assaults on politicians (thankfully rarely harmful) are also invariably perpetrated by leftists.

Since I wrote that column there’s been a furore over a couple of protest marches by white supremacists and other far-Right agitators in the United States. In one shocking incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, one of these angry white misfits struck out at counter-protesters by driving his car at them, killing a woman and injuring others.

Perhaps predictably, someone on Facebook has now challenged me to retract what I wrote about acts of intolerance by the angry Left, and to apologise. Presumably he reasons that the incident in Charlottesville negated everything I said. But there is nothing to retract and still less to apologise for. What I wrote stands. In fact you could even say my point has been reinforced.

First, and most obvious, what happened in Charlottesville doesn’t alter the fact that here in New Zealand, it’s the angry Left, not those on the conservative side of politics, that repeatedly asserts the right to stage protests which interfere with other people’s right to say or hear things that the Left disagrees with.

Second, whatever you might think about the people in Charlottesville who marched in protest against the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate hero Robert E Lee, they have a right of free speech. And no matter how much we might disapprove of their beliefs, they are as entitled to exercise that right as the Left is. The moment free speech is circumscribed by limitations on what sort of speech is permissible, it ceases to exist.

In any case, obnoxious opinions aren’t defeated or magically made to vanish by trying to force them underground. What’s far more likely, as we saw in Charlottesville, is that those who hold them will strike back in defiance.  

So here’s a novel suggestion. Let the morons march. Allow them the same right to protest that the Left insists on, but ignore them. Pay them no attention. Deny them the oxygen of media exposure.

Staging large, boisterous counter-protests plays into their hands. First, it fuels their martyrdom complex. It encourages their perception of themselves as a heroic minority defending traditional white American values against degenerate liberalism.

And of course journalists and camera crews turn up, expecting a stoush. The tension gets ramped up, people start shouting taunts and insults at each other and before long they’re brawling. It’s all over the TV news bulletins that night and the white supremacists have got more exposure than they probably dreamed of.

Imagine how things might play out if these sad, pathetic Neanderthals were left to parade down empty streets watched only by a handful of cops and a stray dog or two. But the Left is incapable of restraining its own overwhelming self-righteousness. By insisting on confrontation, it becomes part of the problem.

In fact it seems clear that in the second of the recent violent American protests, in Boston, most of the trouble was caused by the Left. It was the supposedly liberal counter-protesters who screamed abuse, burned Confederate flags (a gratuitously provocative act), menaced marchers, threw things and assaulted cops. And for what reason? The organisers had promoted the event as a Free Speech Rally. They had distanced themselves from the neo-Nazis and white supremacists of Charlottesville.  But the Left was so pumped-up with rage that what should have been a peaceful event turned into a riot. You have to ask, who was the bigger threat here?

So in answer to the person on Facebook who thinks I should retract and apologise because of what happened in Charlottesville (the Left loves nothing more than intimidating people into giving craven apologies), I say: no chance. Not only was the Charlottesville incident an isolated occurrence, but it wouldn’t have happened at all if the Left hadn’t felt compelled to put on a big display of virtuous opposition.

In fact I’d go further and say that while I loathe and detest the cave-dwellers of the ultra-Right, there’s something almost fascistic in the overwhelming shows of force that the American Left seems determined to muster against what is generally puny and pathetic opposition.