Saturday 30 September 2017

The Last Thing Progressive New Zealand Needs Is A Coalition Of Contradictions.

Be Careful What You Wish For: For the past week Progressive New Zealand has been touting a Labour-NZ First-Green coalition as unequivocally "a good thing". Consequently, there is now a real danger of a coalition of contradictions being brought into existence: a forced parliamentary alliance with the potential to be as politically unedifying as it is electorally short-lived.

IT IS POSSIBLE to want something too much. The New Zealand progressive community’s hunger for power – so shamelessly on display since Election Night – has led it to treat Labour, the Greens and NZ First as unambiguously progressive entities capable of working together without fault or friction. That they know this assumption to be false has not prevented them from presenting a Labour-NZ First-Green Government as unequivocally “a good thing”. Consequently, there is now a real danger of a coalition of contradictions being brought into existence: a forced parliamentary alliance with the potential to be as politically unedifying as it is electorally short-lived.

As by far the most progressive member of the tripartite alliance in prospect, the Greens will be expected to make the most wrenching compromises and concessions. They will discover very rapidly just how vast the discrepancy is between NZ First’s and Labour’s pro-environmental rhetoric, and any willingness on their part to join with the Greens in rolling-out the practical policy measures necessary to give it effect.

The differences between the Greens: a party rooted in the most sophisticated layers of metropolitan New Zealand; and NZ First: a party drawing it most steadfast support from the country’s smallest towns and rural servicing centres; is unlikely to be limited to the best means of tackling climate change and cleaning up the rivers. The Greens and NZ First will find that they are not only at odds over what constitutes practical policy, but that, culturally, they have almost nothing in common. Metiria Turei spoke no more than the truth when she described NZ First as a “racist” party. Quite how the Greens will cope with the sexism and homophobia that is reportedly rife within their newfound ally’s ranks will be agonising to observe.

The Greens’ relationship with Labour is likely to be even more fraught. Disagreements are always sharpest between those who believed themselves to be in accord on the issues that matter most – only to discover that they aren’t. Jacinda’s promises about eliminating child poverty notwithstanding, Labour is not about to abandon its policy of keeping in place a regime of strong “incentives” to “encourage” beneficiaries to move “from welfare to work”. There will be no bonfire of MSD sanctions under Jacinda. Nor will there be a 20 percent increase in beneficiaries’ incomes.

The one election promise Labour will keep and, since the Greens foolishly signed up to it as well, the promise their junior partner will also be expected to honour, is the promise to abide by the self-imposed restrictions of the Labour-Green “Budget Responsibility Rules”. Since these amount to a guarantee that National’s undeclared austerity regime will remain in force across whole swathes of the public sector, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Budget Responsibility Rules will become an extraordinarily divisive force within any Labour-NZ First-Green coalition.

Having denied themselves the ability to raise income and company taxes before 2020, the Labour Party has effectively turned itself into a massive economic brake on its own, and its potential allies’, policy expectations. Unless the Greens and NZ First can persuade the likes of Grant Robertson and David Parker to avail themselves of hitherto out-of-bounds financial resources, this ‘progressive austerity’ will soon turn the coalition into a bitter collection of thwarted hopes and dreams.

Small wonder then, that, according to political journalists Richard Harman and Jane Clifton, there is a growing faction within both the National Caucus and the broader National Party to walk away from any deal with NZ First. Convinced that the coming together of Labour, NZ First and the Greens can only end in bitter disappointment and, ultimately, coalition-dissolving division, they are arguing that it is better to allow the “three-headed monster” to demonstrate its utter incapacity to provide “strong and stable” government for New Zealand. “Give them enough rope,” runs this argument, “and in three years – or less – they will have hanged themselves, and National will be back in the saddle and ready for another very long ride.”

It would be an enormous error for New Zealand’s progressive community to convince itself that the deep contradictions embedded in the manifestos of Labour, NZ First and the Greens can somehow be overcome. Far better for Labour and the Greens, the two parties who are, at least theoretically, ideologically compatible, to spend the next three years developing a suite of progressive policies capable of making a real difference to the lives of the many – not the few.

Right now, with the progressive community’s desire for political power so unreservedly on display, it should be very, very careful what it wishes for.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 30 September 2017.

Friday 29 September 2017

A No. 8 Wire Constitution - That Works.

That'll Do: An awful lot of Kiwis either do not understand, or do not approve of, the way MMP operates. What we have here is MMP – with FPP characteristics. A No. 8 Wire constitution – that works.

NEW ZEALAND AND GERMANY share a common electoral system, and last weekend both countries went to the polls. That’s where the parallels would appear to end, however, because the Germans draw the line at offering-up hostages to political fortune. Every German voter entering a polling booth last Sunday was well aware that should the far-right Alternative For Germany (AfD) party cross the 5 percent MMP threshold, none of the other parties represented in the German Bundestag (federal parliament) would have anything to do with it.

Left-wing German voters entered the polling booth with even more information. They knew that if the far-left Die Linke party re-entered the Bundestag, then neither the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) nor the Greens, would have anything to do with it. Bear in mind that, for the last four years, a theoretical centre-left majority has existed on the Bundestag floor. Regardless, neither the SPD nor the Greens wavered in their opposition to Die Linke’s political connections to the remnants of the former East Germany’s Socialist Unity (i.e. Communist) Party.

Now, consider New Zealand’s predicament. Upwards of two million Kiwi voters went into the polling booths last weekend without a clue as to which of the two major political parties NZ First would join forces with in the event that such an arrangement became necessary. Even more astonishingly, neither of the two major parties was willing to rule out entering into a coalition deal with NZ First.

It is difficult to imagine such a scenario unfolding in Germany. Confronted with a political party committed to stripping a vulnerable ethnic minority of their guaranteed parliamentary representation; tearing up the country’s founding document; reducing the number of parliamentary seats by a sixth; and dramatically diminishing the flow of immigrants across the nation’s border; there can be little doubt that it would have been shunned by Germany’s mainstream political parties in exactly the same fashion as the AfD.

Many New Zealanders will, of course, object that no one takes these NZ First promises at their face value – least of all National and Labour. To accept this, however, is to confirm that neither our leading politicians, nor the electorate itself, take New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy all that seriously. By refusing to regard the policies of NZ First and the promises of its leader, Winston Peters, as truthful statements of genuine intent, we identify ourselves as citizens whose understanding of politics is instinctive rather than cerebral.

It points to an electorate whose constitutional sensibilities are overwhelmingly informed by the custom and practice of successive generations of politicians. Not so much Hegel and Heidegger, as “don’t worry, mate, she’ll be right”. We inhabit a political culture in which a generous helping of cynicism is considered essential to getting the democratic recipe right. New Zealand’s constitutional theory elevates good-old Kiwi common-sense well above strict Germanic ratiocination.

No matter how many times our formal constitutionalists insist (quite correctly) that there is no rule which says the party with the most votes gets to form the next government, New Zealand’s common-sense constitutionalists, guided by political precedent, will reply: “Yeah, yeah, we know there’s no ‘rule’, mate, but, at the end of the day, the largest party will be the party that calls the shots in the next government. Wouldn’t be fair, otherwise!”

Most certainly, that is not in “the spirit of MMP”. For the very simple reason that most Kiwis either do not understand, or do not approve of, the way MMP operates. What we have here is MMP – with FPP characteristics. A No. 8 Wire constitution – that works.

The Germans would, no doubt, respond to all this evidence of our simplicity with a sad smile. “Yours has been an extremely lucky country”, they would say. “But what will you do when your luck runs out? What will you do when you are confronted with a politician and/or a party which is deadly serious about the policies it puts before you? How well will your easy-going cynicism about politics and politicians serve you when you are confronted by a party that is fuelled by the most uncompromising idealism? We Germans have experience of such politicians and parties. Which is why, when we encounter them, we shun them, and shut them out. You should do the same.”

“Shut out Winston? Nah, mate, that wouldn’t be fair!”

This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 September 2017.

Thursday 28 September 2017

MMP With FPP Characteristics: New Zealand's DIY Electoral System.

Mixed Feelings About Mixed Member Proportional Representation: In 1993, New Zealanders embraced MMP partly out of conviction, but mostly out of a desire to blacken the eyes of those who had used FPP to turn their country upside-down for no good reason. Since then, the Kiwi voter has fashioned a DIY electoral regime: somehow incorporating the majoritarianism of the old system into the checks and balances of the new.

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about who “won” the 2017 General Election. Sharp differences have emerged between those who have judged the outcome as a clear National victory, and those who insist that Labour, with the assistance of the Greens and NZ First, has every right to anticipate forming a new government. In essence, this dispute turns on whether New Zealand’s political system is a straightforward creature of the Law, or something constantly emerging from the customs and practices of the people who inhabit it. I place myself among the latter.

In fairness to all the legalists out there, I must acknowledge that in terms of such formal constitutional conventions as New Zealand possesses (and there are surprisingly few) there is absolutely nothing to prevent the Labour Leader, Jacinda Ardern, from advising the Governor-General that she has negotiated an agreement with NZ First and the Greens which places her in command of a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives. Upon confirming that advice, the Governor-General would have no option but to invite Jacinda to form a government.

That Labour, NZ First and the Greens can do this is not in dispute. What is disputed, however, is whether such an agreement will be negotiated. The distance between “can” and “will” is vast – and filled with obstacles.

The greatest of these obstacles is the persistence of the electorate’s political vision. Although New Zealand has been conducting MMP elections for 21 years, the memories and expectations of voters old enough to have participated in elections conducted under the rules of First-Past-The-Post (FPP) continue to exert a powerful influence on the public’s understanding of political events – as anyone who reads the Letters-to-the Editor columns will attest. The most persistent of these political after-images – that the party obtaining the most votes gets to become the government – is particularly tenacious.

Augmenting the electorate’s persistence of political vision, is the enduring resentment of those New Zealanders who have consistently voted to retain and/or restore the FPP system. A substantial minority, around 40 percent of the electorate, emphatically rejects the idea that New Zealand is well-served by proportional representation. These citizens remain firmly wedded to the simple plurality, single-member constituency, system of electing members of parliament. Among such voters, the legitimacy of the MMP system’s Party lists and List MPs continues to be hotly contested.

Even among those who support MMP, considerable confusion still exists as to the relative importance of the Party Vote and the Electorate Vote. Among voters there is a widespread misapprehension that Members of Parliament elected to represent their local communities deserve higher status than MPs elected off a Party List the public had no part in drawing-up. The key role of the Party Vote in determining the outcome of a general election continues to elude many voters.

It is tempting to argue that, when determining the political future of the country, the misapprehensions and ignorance of ordinary voters should not be accorded any special weight. Certainly, our electoral legislation makes no such allowance. If electors allocate their two votes according to the mistaken assumption that their Electorate Vote counts for more than their Party Vote, then that’s just too bad. They should have paid closer attention to the Law.

Unfortunately for the legalists, New Zealand’s politicians cannot afford to be so definitive. Our political leaders know that while the Electoral Commission must operate according to the strict rules of the Electoral Act, their own operations must be guided by the rules the electorate assumes to be in force. These DIY electoral rules have grown out of the custom and practice of the politicians whose job it has been, since 1996, to make MMP work. In making these political choices, our leaders have paid considerably more attention to what the voters think they should do, than to what the constitutional conventions laid down in the Cabinet Manual actually empower them to do. In doing so, they have created a whole new set of “unofficial” conventions.

The most important of these is that the party winning the most votes, and taking the most seats, must be allowed to form a government. To say this represents outdated FPP thinking is true – but irrelevant. Most New Zealanders balk at the prospect of being ruled by a “coalition of the losers”. In their minds, a plurality is as good as a majority – and that “majority’ must rule. This widely-held (albeit completely erroneous) view of electoral best-practice leads the voters inexorably on to the next-most-important convention: that it is the duty of whichever small party is best positioned to do so (ideologically and/or practically) to supply the largest party with the votes it needs to give New Zealand “strong and stable” government.

The fact that the voters have got it all wrong is nowhere near as important as the fact that they believe themselves to be in the right. After all, this is how all previous MMP governments have been formed, and a consistently large majority of voters are firmly of the view that this is how all future MMP governments should be formed. Perhaps the best way of describing New Zealand’s DIY electoral system is: MMP with FPP characteristics. It may not have the slightest justification in either law, or the officially-defined constitutional conventions, but woe betide any politician who sets his, or her, face against it.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 27 September 2017.

A Song For The Times.

Out of the Blue and into the Black
They give you this, but you pay for that
And once you're gone, you can't come back
When you're out of the Blue and into the Black

Hey Hey, My My. - Neil Young.

Video courtesy of You Tube

This posting exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Tuesday 26 September 2017

WHAT IF? Some Random Thoughts About The Next Three Weeks.

The Ultimate Dirty Deal: When Hitler and Stalin - mortal ideological enemies - concluded their mutual non-aggression pact in 1939, the world stood aghast. Why did no one see it coming? Fundamentally, it came down to a lack of imagination. Being able to think the unthinkable is a rare talent in politics - but an extremely valuable one. Something to keep in mind over the next three weeks.

WHAT IF, three weeks from today, National decides that an acceptable deal with NZ First just isn’t on “the cards that count”? What if the easy assumptions of Election Night: that Winston Peters will recognise the futility of attempting to build a coalition with anyone other than National; have long since proved vain? What if it only takes a few days for National’s negotiators to realise that, in the 21 years since 1996, NZ First had matured into a political party with a mind of its own?

What if it turns out that Peters’ views, although taken extremely seriously by his party colleagues, no longer enjoy the status of Holy Writ? What if National’s negotiators discover that NZ First’s policies are actually a great deal more than mere rhetorical flourishes? What if NZ First’s manifesto is expected to be treated as a serious proposition by both National and Labour? What if, when English’s negotiating team are caught rolling their eyes and smothering guffaws, the atmosphere drops rapidly from cool to effing freezing? What if the prospects of a deal with NZ First – a deal which National’s caucus, members and supporters, the markets, and New Zealand’s major trading partners, can all live with – dwindle?

What if, three weeks from today, NZ First’s parallel negotiations with Labour are going gang-busters? What if the Wellington beltway’s confident prediction that Peters and Jacinda Ardern would not hit it off proves to be wildly inaccurate? What if a shared liking for single malt whiskey breaks the ice between the two leaders and the talk flows freely? What if Ardern’s rural upbringing has equipped her with a set of core values remarkably congruent with Peters’ own? What if both leaders evince a strong sense of patriotic duty which, in turn, imbues their respective negotiating teams with the feeling that they are but two halves of a single mission?

What if the broad policy over-lap of NZ First and Labour only makes matters easier? What if, on immigration there is particularly strong agreement? What if, in the midst of their discussions on this subject, both negotiating teams come face-to-face with their strong negative feelings – bordering on complete aversion – to the Greens and their policies? What if, reported back to their respective leaders, these reservations progress quickly to a top-level conversation that edges, inexorably, towards the conclusion that if an agreement is to be concluded between NZ First and Labour, then the only role for the Greens will be to supply the votes necessary to carry confidence and supply motions?

WHAT IF, three weeks from today, a transcript of this conversation between Peters and Ardern is placed in the hands of the Caretaker Prime Minister by an employee of the Security Intelligence Service? What if English, reassured that the information had been collected in accordance with the “activities which impact adversely on New Zealand’s international well-being or economic well-being” clause of the SIS Act, calls the Greens’ leader, James Shaw, to a clandestine meeting where he invites him to listen to the relevant fragments of the secretly recorded conversation between Ardern and Peters?

What if, putting to one side the morality and legality of the recording, Shaw demands to know from English why he is being allowed to listen to it? What if English then briefs him on the difficulties his own party is having negotiating with NZ First, and on the sheer size of the dead rats NZ First is expecting National to swallow in order to secure the right to govern. What if, being asked again by Shaw to explain why he is being told all this, English takes a deep breath and invites the Green Party leader to set forth the conditions under which he would be willing to ask his party to vote on whether or not to enter into a formal coalition agreement with the National Party?

What if Shaw laughs out loud, declaring that the very notion of such an arrangement would send the farmers into paroxysms of rage and split the National Party asunder? What if English agrees that a split would be inevitable, but then asks Shaw to consider whether that would be such a bad thing? What if English suggests that a “country party” would not only provide National with a permanent coalition partner, but would also draw support away from NZ First? What if English went on to suggest that, with the Greens anchoring a much more moderate National Party in the centre of the political spectrum, the ecological policies so dear to his heart would have a much better chance of being enacted? What if he then pointed out that, if the Greens came to feel that National was insufficiently attentive to the needs of the planet, they could always turn to Labour?

What if Shaw objected that the very idea of negotiating with National would almost certainly cost him his job, and that the Green Party would never let him do it. What if English responded by asking Shaw if his party would still feel so adamant about keeping National at arm’s length if its members were made aware of what their supposed friends in the Labour Party and NZ First really thought of them? What if he asked Shaw to weigh-up whether or not the Greens really would walk away from a genuine Government offer to get serious about Climate Change, poverty and swimmable rivers?

WHAT IF, three weeks from today, Bill English asks James Shaw if he has ever heard of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact? 

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 26 September 2017.

Bill To Winston: "Let's Do This!"

An Emphatic Plurality: Bill English is on course to lead National into a fourth term with a greater share of the popular vote than “Kiwi Keith” Holyoake. Bearing in mind that, 50 years ago, New Zealand elected its governments according to the rules of First-Past-The-Post, that is nothing short of astonishing.

HERE’S A TRULY SOBERING FACT to take away from Saturday’s general election. Nine years after taking office, the National Party is more popular in 2017 than it was in 2008. John Key became New Zealand’s prime minister after securing 44.93 percent of the Party Vote for the National Party. Our caretaker prime minister, Bill English, will enter into negotiations with NZ First’s Winston Peters having secured 46 percent of the Party Vote for National on election night. For the first time since 1969, a New Zealand government looks set for a fourth term.

And get this: Bill English is on course for that fourth term with a greater share of the popular vote than “Kiwi Keith” Holyoake. Bearing in mind that, 50 years ago, New Zealand elected its governments according to the rules of First-Past-The-Post, that is nothing short of astonishing.

The Labour Party, by contrast, is celebrating “a remarkable comeback” with 35.8 percent of the Party Vote. But is it all that remarkable? When the First Labour Government lost power in 1949, it was with 47.2 percent of the popular vote. The Second fell in 1960, with 43.4 percent. When the hapless Bill Rowling was turfed out of office by Rob Muldoon in 1975, Labour’s share of the popular vote had fallen from 48.4 to 39.6 percent. In 1990, Labour racked-up just 35.14 percent as National’s Jim Bolger rolled over Battling Mike Moore to victory. And, when Helen Clark surrendered to John Key in 2008, Labour’s share of the Party Vote was just shy of 34 percent.

In other words, Labour is claiming a remarkable comeback on the strength of a popular vote share which, in past elections, has betokened decisive defeat.

Then again, Jacinda Ardern’s 35.8 percent (on Election Night) is just 2.94 percentage points less than the 38.74 percent of the Party Vote which carried Ms Clark to victory in 1999.

Except that, in 1999, Labour could count on the support of Jim Anderton’s Alliance (7.74 percent) and the Greens (5.16 percent) to assemble a centre-left Party Vote combo representing 51.64 percent of the electorate.

If we perform the same calculation on the basis of Saturday’s provisional results, the Opposition parties’ numbers add up to a tantalising 49.2 percent – and that number may cross the magic 50 percent threshold when Special Votes are counted. The question we are, thus, left to decide, is whether or not it is politically reasonable to assign the role played by the Alliance Party in 1999 to the NZ First Party of 2017.

The only reasonable answer is – No.

Winston Peters’ rhetorical flourishes against “the neoliberal experiment” notwithstanding, NZ First is not the unequivocally left-wing party that the Alliance was. Nor does Mr Peters have the luxury of looking at a National Party whose share of the Party Vote is less than Labour’s. In 1999, Jenny Shipley’s National Government attracted just 30.5 percent of the Party Vote. In marked contrast to Mr English’s position in 2017, there was simply no path to a parliamentary majority for Ms Shipley’s National Party.

What is it, then, that Mr Peters is confronting? First and foremost, he’s faced with a National Party undiminished in terms of popular support; controlling close to half the seats in the House of Representatives; and with the near unanimous endorsement of the most powerful institutions of New Zealand society. The people backing Bill English are the people who own things; the people who run things; the people accustomed to having the things they say becoming the things that people do – and pretty damn quickly. What on earth could Mr Peters possibly say to the 46 percent of New Zealanders who voted for the National Party that would in the slightest way reconcile them to being ignored?

He certainly cannot point to a record turnout of registered voters. That figure will be lucky to top 80 percent – a far cry from the 93.7 percent of electors who turned out to get rid of Rob Muldoon’s National Government in 1984. Nor can he point to a mass movement of the angry poor gathered behind a radical manifesto demanding fundamental changes to the way their country is run.

No, when Mr Peters turns to face the alternative to a National-NZ First coalition government, what does he see? A Labour Party which appears to believe that revolutions are delivered by working groups; and a Green Party which, having somehow survived the near write-off of its political vehicle, struggles to believe it’s still alive. Putting an end to “the neoliberal experiment” will, almost certainly, require a tougher team than this!

So, Mr Peters will play “the cards that count” with all the skill he indisputably possesses. And Mr English, if he is wise, will clasp his newfound ally by the hand and say: “Let’s do this!”

This essay was originally published in The Press of Monday, 25 September 2017.

Friday 22 September 2017

Election Day Blackout.

A Song For The Times.

I know Bill Clinton’s 1992 Campaign got to this song first, but what the Hell!

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
Don’t stop, it'll soon be here
It'll be even better than before,
Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone

Don’t Stop – Fleetwood Mac


Video courtesy of YouTube

This post is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Some Things Never Change.

Sheer, Red-Baiting Idiocy: Here, just five days out from a general election, was proof that, in this country, there are still places which remain entirely untouched by the sunlight of the twenty-first century.

ON THE EVE of Women’s Suffrage Day, a Waikato cow-cockie was photographed carrying a sign declaring Jacinda Ardern to be “a pretty communist”. In terms of reasons for feeling outraged and affronted, Labour supporters were spoiled for choice. Should they be outraged at the overt sexism of the “pretty”? Or affronted by the sheer, red-baiting idiocy of the “communist”? Then again, a compelling case could be made for being disturbed by the whole extraordinary image. Here, just five days out from a general election, was proof that, in this country, there are still places which remain entirely untouched by the sunlight of the twenty-first century.

So unenlightened are these ideological troglodytes that they have yet to grasp the fact that the milk from their cows; the liquid that gets processed into powder in Fonterra’s factories; the export product that gets loaded onto ships; is bound for a country ruled entirely and exclusively by members of the Communist Party of China. That’s right! The people who keep our cow cockies in their tractors and utes may not be all that pretty, but they are, most emphatically, communists!

Another fact these strange subterranean folks seem to have forgotten (assuming they ever knew it in the first place) is that the comprehensive free-trade agreement between New Zealand and the Peoples Republic of China – the first such document ever signed by the Chinese state and a democratic western nation – was negotiated by the Labour Government of Helen Clark. That’s right! The world’s largest market for milk powder; the market that kept New Zealand’s dairy industry afloat through the dark days of the Global Financial Crisis; had been opened up for them by a left-wing woman – from the Waikato.

Not that the New Zealand Right’s blind hatred of all things Left is anything new. Throughout this country’s history, conservative Kiwis have demonstrated an exaggerated fear – bordering on full-blown paranoia – of “the wrong sort of people” (i.e. those not farmers or businessmen) being able to exercise the slightest measure of control over their lives.

The Right’s fear of being governed by the Left is not born out of strong libertarian principle. It is not as though the very idea of one group of human-beings exercising control over another is anathema to right-wing politicians and their supporters. After all, the Right is only too happy to use the full panoply of state power against those whose economic and social subordination is deemed essential to securing their own social and economic ascendancy. Indeed, the history of New Zealand is little more than the record of the Right’s never-ending struggle to resist and reverse the egalitarian policies and achievements of the Left.

Even when those policies and achievements have been to the obvious benefit of the nation as a whole, the Right has not, for a single moment, relented. On the morning of the 1938 General Election, for example, after three years of extraordinary progress under the First Labour Government, and with the ground-breaking Social Security Act due to come into force on 1 April 1939, this was the editorial warning the capital city’s morning newspaper delivered to its readers:

“Today you will exercise a free vote because you are under this established British form of government. If the socialist government is returned to power, your vote today may be the last free individual vote you will ever be given the opportunity to exercise in New Zealand.”

Over the top? Not according to a 1938 National Party circular to its parliamentary candidates:

“Oppose! Oppose! Oppose! That is the essential duty of Nationalist speakers. Use every possible play of words, every fact you can advance to show that your opponents are fools, political hypocrites, opportunists, seekers of power, despots, traitors to their own class, to their country, or their Empire.”

It was curiously reassuring, following the recent National Party claim that there is an $11.7 billion “hole” in the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Party’s fiscal plan, to discover how little the Right’s strategic approach to fighting general elections has changed.

Be it the democratic nightmares of conservative leader-writers, or the fever-dreams of red-baiting Waikato cow-cockies, the right-wing reflex to “Oppose! Oppose! Oppose!” remains as strong as ever.

What is it the French say? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 September 2017.

Thursday 21 September 2017

You’re Wrong Keith: We Have To Do This NOW.

Let's Do This NOW! Elections are won when the electorate’s general preference for prosperity and stability is overwhelmed by its desire to turn the page and begin something new. When simply restoring the same old faces to the same old places no longer seems enough. When obtaining justice for past wrongs; and securing for themselves, and for their children, a different and better future; calls forth from the nation’s voters an unaccustomed measure of courage and daring. (Photo by JOHN MILLER)

KEITH RANKIN IS WRONG about Jacinda needing to lose this election. If that’s what happens on Saturday: if National somehow hauls itself back onto the Treasury Benches; then it is the purest folly to suppose that the election of 2020 will be a Labour walkover. If the Centre-Left cannot win in 2017, then the question that begs to be answered is: “Can it win at all?”

Presumably, Keith is being guided by the historical precedent of the 1969 “nearly-but-not-quite” election; That was the election which Labour lost by 14,000 votes, only to be swept into office three years later in the “It’s time!” election of 1972. Or, perhaps he’s thinking of the “Springbok Tour Election” of 1981, when National secured a two-seat majority in spite of receiving 4,122 fewer votes than the Labour Party nationwide. As happened in 1969, Labour’s narrow defeat was followed by a unambiguous victory three years later in the watershed snap-election of 1984.

If these are the precedents that Keith has in mind, then they deserve closer scrutiny. Especially since Keith’s reason for identifying the 2017 election as the one Jacinda needs to lose is that, in his opinion: “there will be a financial crisis next year … [which Labour] … is ill-equipped to handle … Further, it may take a major financial crisis (with Labour in Opposition) to drag Labour into the present century, just as the 1930s’ crisis belatedly dragged Labour into the twentieth century.”

Leaving aside the fact that Labour was very much a twentieth century political party (founded in 1916) and, therefore, in no need of being dragged anywhere; its failure to win the 1931 general election after close to three years of the most calamitous economic depression in modern history is highly instructive. Certainly, Labour expected to win and was deeply demoralised by the right-wing United-Reform Coalition’s electoral success.

Now, if we follow Keith’s thesis, Labour’s 1931 defeat merely presaged its inevitable victory of 1935. Except that Labour’s 1935 win was more a matter of good luck than good management. In fact, had the New Zealand Right not fallen into bitter factional strife over the best way to deal with the Great Depression, then there is absolutely no guarantee that Labour would have won. Certainly, if the country had had a proportional electoral system (as it does today) then the Centre-Left’s total of 46.5 percent may not have been enough.

Significant, also, in terms of Keith’s thesis, is the fact that, by 1935, the worst years of the Great Depression were over. The nadir had been reached in 1932, when widespread rioting had broken out in all of New Zealand’s major cities. Over the course of the next three years, however, the rapid spiral into misery and hopelessness had slowed. Although, it must be said, things were still very bad, and working-class hatred for the Coalition Government was palpable. Even so, the chance was there in 1935. Had the Right been united, and led by the moderate former prime-minister, Gordon Coates, Labour could have been run very close – and maybe even defeated.

Certainly, the sharp economic downturn of 1967-68 was insufficient to unseat the National Government of Keith Holyoake in 1969. What’s more, by late November 1972, the New Zealand economy was going gang-busters. There was over-full employment, wages were rising ahead of inflation, and the NZ Dollar was worth more than the US Dollar! And yet, in spite of all this good economic news, the electorate turfed-out Jack Marshall’s National Government with nary a backward glance.

Likewise, in 1984. The loud criticisms of his ideological foes in the finance sector and news media notwithstanding, Rob Muldoon’s two-year Wage & Price Freeze had brought inflation down to low single figures, and his Think Big projects in the regions had kept the unemployment rate well below 10 percent. Most impressive of all, however, was the stunning recovery in per capita GDP growth, which, at close to 6 percent, was an astonishing 8 percentage points higher than the recessionary -2 percent recorded the previous year. Not bad for a Polish shipyard!

None of these figures did Muldoon much good at the ballot-box in 1984, however. Attacked from the right by Bob Jones’s New Zealand Party, and from the left (or so we thought!) by David Lange’s Labour Party, National’s vote fell from 38.8 to 35.8 percent. (A surprisingly modest drop – all things considered!) Labour itself, lifted its vote from 39.0 to 42.9 percent. Another modest result – and well below the 48.4 percent share of the popular vote Labour had attracted in 1972 – the last time it won a general election.

The lesson to be drawn from these historical examples is that misery, alone, is insufficient to propel a left-wing party into power. If it was, then Labour would most certainly have been elected in 1931. Nor is economic success the key determinant of electoral outcomes. If it were, then Muldoon, like Holyoake in 1969, should have been able to fend off Lange’s challenge in 1984. [And, before anybody objects that New Zealand faced an economic crisis in 1984, I would remind them that the run on the $NZ was deliberately engineered by Roger Douglas, who “accidentally” left a position paper indicating Labour’s intention to order a devaluation of 20 percent if it won the election, lying on his chair for journalists to find at an election meeting in Auckland. – C.T.] Clearly, Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential Campaign Team’s oft-quoted quip: “It’s the economy, stupid!”, isn’t always true.

What is true, I think, is that elections are won when the electorate’s general preference for prosperity and stability is overwhelmed by its desire to turn the page and begin something new. When simply restoring the same old faces to the same old places no longer seems enough. When obtaining justice for past wrongs; and securing for themselves, and for their children, a different and better future; calls forth from the nation’s voters an unaccustomed measure of courage and daring.

The trick, of course, is to prevent that courage and daring from fading away. In this respect, it is not the general election of 1935 that changed New Zealand history, but the 1938 election which followed it. In the three years that separated that first Labour victory from the second, the government of Michael Joseph Savage had laid the groundwork for a genuine transformation of New Zealand society. Effectively, he was saying to the New Zealand people: “Three years is not enough to complete the task we have begun on your behalf. Give us your votes so we can finish the job.”

And that’s exactly what the people of New Zealand did. At an astonishing 55.8 percent, Labour’s share of the popular vote was the highest ever recorded at a New Zealand general election.

What I would say to Keith, therefore, is that Jacinda cannot afford to lose in 2017 – any more than Mickey Savage could afford to lose in 1935. The groundwork, for a fairer, smarter and environmentally sustainable New Zealand in the twenty-first century, needs to be laid over the course of the next three years, so that the true, the irreversible, transformation can take place in the years following the 2020 election. Just as there could have been no 1938 without 1935, there will be no 2020 without 2017.

We have to do this NOW.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 21 September 2017.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

A Song For The Times.

It’s the terror of knowing
What the world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming ‘Let me out’ 

Under Pressure - David Bowie/Queen

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Tuesday 19 September 2017

When The Country Goes To Town.

Pretty Ugly, Pretty Quickly: That the demographic and cultural divide between rural and urban New Zealand remains a source of deep unease to farmers cannot be doubted. Equally indisputable, historically-speaking, has been the militant, even violent, character of rural New Zealand’s response. In New Zealand history, when the country comes to town, things tend to get pretty ugly, pretty quickly. Morrinsville, New Zealand, 18 September 2017.

YESTERDAY IN MORRINSVILLE farmers rallied against Labour’s proposed “Water Tax”. Why Morrinsville? Because that was the little country town in which Jacinda Ardern grew up. Just think about that for a moment. Think about what it says about the mindset of a distressingly large percentage of New Zealand’s farming community.

The president of the Waikato branch of Federated Farmers, Andrew McGiven, told the NZ Farmer newspaper that farmers were tired of being scapegoated by politicians. Another protest organiser, local farmer Lloyd Downing, complained to the same publication in similar fashion:

“The lack of fairness and consistency in some of the proposed policies, and the laying of blame solely at the feet of rural New Zealand for all of our environmental challenges is what is frustrating farmers – particularly when it is well known that the most polluted waterways are in urban catchments. The water quality issues are a challenge for all New Zealanders. Farmers recognise that, and are spending tens of thousands of dollars each on reducing their environmental impact.”

It was in response to these “continued attacks” on “rural New Zealand” that farmers rallied in their hundreds under Morrinsville’s giant cow statue.

New Zealanders like to think of themselves as people with strong ties to the land. It’s a fallacy which perhaps explains the enduring popularity of the television programme, Country Calendar. Except that, for most of its history, New Zealand has been an urban nation. Certainly, by the early years of the twentieth century most Kiwis resided and worked in towns and cities. In terms of their jobs, lifestyle and political outlook, these “townies” were a very different breed.

That this demographic and cultural divide between rural and urban New Zealand was a source of deep unease to farmers cannot be doubted. Equally indisputable, historically-speaking, has been the militant, even violent, character of rural New Zealand’s response. In New Zealand history, when the country comes to town, things tend to get pretty ugly, pretty quickly.

In 1913, for example, hundreds of armed farmers on horseback (known forever after as “Massey’s Cossacks” after the farmer-friendly Reform Party prime minister, William Massey) were brought into New Zealand’s major cities to crush what would come to be known as “The Great Strike”. According to New Zealand historian, James Belich, exchanges of gunfire between Massey’s Cossacks and the “Red Fed” strikers were common. Many of the trade unionists involved in the Great Strike later became MPs and Ministers in the First Labour Government.

One of those unionists was Peter Fraser. In 1945, as Prime Minister and Labour Party Leader, Fraser presided over the abolition of the infamous “Country Quota”. This was the section of New Zealand’s Electoral Act which, ever since 1881, had added a 25 percent weighting to votes cast in rural electorates.

The reaction of the farming community to Fraser’s long-overdue rectification of what can only be described as a democratic outrage is instructive. In his book, The Quest For Security In New Zealand 1840-1966, W B Sutch describes how Labour’s plans to abolish the Country Quota were met with “country-wide protests from farmers’ organisations, an appeal to the Governor-General asking him to intervene, and threats of direct action.” Quite what the cockies meant by “direct action” remains unclear, but the Dominion Executive of the Farmers’ Union (forerunner of Federated Farmers) was prepared to raise the then quite considerable sum of £250,000 to fund it!

The sort of thing the cockies had in mind only became clear in 1951, when the first farmers’ government since 1935 was willing to shut down New Zealand’s democracy for the 151 days it took Sid Holland’s National Party to replicate its Reform Party predecessor’s success in ruthlessly suppressing militant trade-unionism in the nation’s ports, coal mines, railways and freezing works.

Thirty years later, the reactionary cultural instincts of rural New Zealand were, once again, pitched into a prolonged and violent confrontation with the progressive values of metropolitan New Zealanders. The 1981 Springbok Tour not only bore testimony to the tenacity of rural conservatism, but also to its steady migration into the upper-middle-class suburbs of the largest cities.

When Mike Hosking challenged National’s current leader to name something he would march for, Dipton’s favourite son was at a loss. This was curious, since the photographs of a placard-carrying Bill English, seated jauntily on ‘Myrtle the Tractor’, at the 2003 Federated Farmers’ protest against the so-called “Fart Tax”, in Parliament Grounds, were still in the archives – and easily retrieved.

When Andrew McGiven and Lloyd Downing encouraged their rural brethren to gather under Morrinsville’s giant cow yesterday, they were simply adding another chapter to an already lengthy story of rural antagonism towards the needs and aspirations of New Zealand’s urban majority. The latter looked on, appalled, at the selfishness and ignorance which unfailingly follow the country into town.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 September 2017.

Monday 18 September 2017

1969: The "Nearly-But-Not-Quite" Election.

Labour Nearly Did This: It didn’t really seem possible that Labour could have lost. Its 1969 campaign had broken new ground in terms of media sophistication. Labour’s theme-song “Make Things Happen” had topped the local charts, and its television commercial, put together by a hungry young ad-man called Bob Harvey, was slicker than anything New Zealand voters had hitherto encountered.

“WE’VE GOT IT!” Was the triumphant (if incautious) assertion of the supposedly neutral Professor Bob Chapman on the night of the 1969 “nearly-but-not-quite” general election. The worthy professor should perhaps be forgiven for his premature psephological ejaculation. He had marked down the electorate of Eden as the seat Labour was bound to take if it was on-course to becoming the government. On the night, Labour’s candidate, the distinguished New Zealand historian, Professor Keith Sinclair, had taken it. Chapman, whose Labour sympathies were well known to his colleagues (if not to the television audience) had waited nine long years to see the National Government of Keith Holyoake defeated. And, half-way through the election-night telecast, it seemed as though his political patience was being rewarded. That Keith Sinclair was also Chapman’s good friend and colleague, merely slapped a good-sized dollop of icing on the cake.

By the end of the telecast, however, the story had changed. Sinclair’s narrow election-night majority notwithstanding, Labour had fallen four seats short of the 43 needed to win. An industrial dispute involving a ship called the Wainui – culminating in a march up Queen Street by the communist-dominated Seafarers’ Union – had cost the Labour leader, Norman Kirk, the Auckland seats he’d needed (and confidently expected) to secure the prime-minister’s job. Even Eden, after the counting of Special Votes, reverted to National’s John Rae by the wafer-thin margin of 67 votes.

It didn’t really seem possible that Labour could have lost. Its campaign had broken new ground in terms of media sophistication. Labour’s theme-song “Make Things Happen” had topped the local charts, and its television commercial, put together by a hungry young ad-man called Bob Harvey, was slicker than anything New Zealand voters had hitherto encountered. What’s more, between the 1966 and 1969 elections, New Zealand had passed through its sharpest economic downturn since the Second World War. Export prices had collapsed and unemployment had risen to a post-Depression peak. It seemed inconceivable that a nine-year-old government, offering such a lacklustre record, could possibly be re-elected. How was it that Holyoake won?

First-off, there was the rapidity of the country’s economic recovery. Export prices recovered and unemployment fell sharply in the months leading up to the 1969 election. National’s new finance minister, Rob Muldoon, was thus able to project competence and control in equal measure. To many voters, the 1967-68 recession seemed nothing more than a glitch, an aberrant departure from the steady upward trajectory of New Zealand’s post-war economic performance. Certainly, Muldoon’s message to the electorate was unequivocal: “I’ve got this!” His reputation as National’s “economic wizard” dates from this period.

But an improving economy wasn’t the only reason for National’s surprise win in 1969. There may have been growing ferment on the nation’s campuses, and increasing union militancy in the nation’s factories and freezing-works but, at heart, New Zealand remained a deeply conservative society. The events of the previous year: the annus horribilis of 1968; with its tragic list of assassinations (Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy) and its frightening clashes between young protesters and out-of-control police personnel (Paris, Chicago, Mexico City) had culminated not in revolution, but in the election of Richard Nixon as President of the United States. There was “something in the air”, alright – conservative paranoia!

And so, late in the evening of Saturday, 29 November 1969, it was a visibly relieved Keith Holyoake who gently chastised Professor Chapman for his earlier – premature – celebration of a Labour victory. Against all the odds, National’s three-term government had been returned for a fourth. Only the first Labour Government of Mickey Savage and Peter Fraser could boast an equal number of consecutive election victories (1935, 1938, 1943, 1946).

But, Holyoake was no fool. He knew that only “events, dear boy, events” had rescued his party from the jaws of certain defeat on 29 November 1969. Twenty-six months later, on 7 February 1972, just nine months out from the next scheduled general election, Holyoake would step away from the prime-ministership – passing-on a poison-smeared baton to his loyal deputy, Jack Marshall. Similarly, on the night of that agonisingly close contest (National’s 1969 vote, at 605,960, was just 13,905 votes ahead of Labour’s tally of 592,055) “Big Norm” Kirk was quietly confident that, in spite of losing the “nearly-but-not-quite” election of 1969, nothing short of divine intervention was going to prevent him from leading Labour to victory in 1972.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 18 September 2017.

Sunday 17 September 2017


Let's Do This Now! New Zealand is poised to repeat the circumstances that produced the shock British election result of 2015. Those with a retentive political memory will recall how both the pollsters and the pundits were predicting an extremely close election which could very easily see the Labour Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, moving in to Number 10 Downing Street as Britain’s next prime minister. Didn’t happen.

IF, ON ELECTION NIGHT 2017, you end up staring at the numbers in horrified disbelief. If National proves the people at Reid Research are the best pollsters in the business. If the Jacinda Train runs out of puff several percentage-points short of being able to form a government. If the Greens: the dear, earnest, tree-hugging Greens; fall below the 5 percent MMP threshold. If, after all these calamities, you’re casting about in your anger and your grief for an explanation, then reclaim from the back of your mind this crucial piece of information from Elections New Zealand.

As at 15 September, just over a week out from Election Day, “nearly 20,000 fewer young people under 30 [have] registered compared with 2014”.

Got that? Notwithstanding the fact that the leadership of the Labour Party has passed to a young woman of 37. Notwithstanding the fact that Labour is promising to enact a suite of policies aimed directly at addressing the problems besetting young New Zealanders. Notwithstanding the fact that the most future-focused of all New Zealand political parties, the Greens, are at serious risk of being ushered out of Parliament altogether. Notwithstanding all of these things, fewer citizens under 30 have registered than three years ago!

New Zealand is poised to repeat the circumstances that produced the shock British election result of 2015. Those with a retentive political memory will recall how both the pollsters and the pundits were predicting an extremely close election which could very easily see the Labour Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, moving in to Number 10 Downing Street as Britain’s next prime minister.

Didn’t happen.

As polling stations across the British Isles closed their doors, and the counting began, the BBC released an exit poll indicating a comfortable win for the British Conservative Party. Pundits and Opposition politicians alike were dumbfounded. When all the polls were predicting a close race – and some a Labour win – how could the BBC’s exit poll possibly be true?

The Tories knew the answer. They had cottoned-on to what was happening weeks before. All those young Britons who’d happily told the pollsters that they supported Ed Miliband and Labour were by no means as committed to making their way to a polling-booth and actually voting for them. Older voters, on the other hand, were borderline obsessive when it came to exercising the franchise. And guess what? Around three-quarters of them were Tories.

Two years later, back here in New Zealand, the chances of something very similar unfolding are distressingly high. Just consider these additional stats from Elections New Zealand:

“So far, 97 percent of people over 70 have enrolled to vote, but as the age drops, so does the percentage. Only 75 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 29 enrolled to vote and that proportion dropped to 67 percent for 18 to 24-year-olds.”

Combine that data with the latest Colmar Brunton poll’s finding that 67 percent of voters aged between 18 and 34 told the pollster that they were intending to vote for the Labour Party. 1New’s political editor, Corin Dann, has described this as a “youthquake” – and if 18 to 34-year-olds voted in anything like the same numbers as the over-60s, then he’d be right, and Labour/Green would cruise to a stunning election victory.

But, will they? In 2014 around 200,000 young New Zealanders declined to cast a vote. If that degree of abstention is repeated in 2017, then the same gasps of disbelief that greeted the BBC’s exit poll in 2015 will likely be heard here as the Early Voting figures are released on the evening of 23 September. Youthquakes are not born of young voters’ stated intentions, they only occur when young people get themselves to a polling station, step into a booth, fill out a ballot-paper, and drop it into a ballot-box. Jacinda will not become prime minister by millennials liking her on Facebook. To effect a change of government, it is absolutely necessary that young New Zealanders vote.

Among all this doom and gloom there is, however, some good news.

When the Tory British Prime Minister, Teresa May, called a snap election earlier this year, the pundits and pollsters were determined not to be caught napping a second time. If younger citizens, in spite of declaring their support for a political party, don’t actually make it to the polling booths, reasoned the pollsters, then we must adjust our raw results to take account of the high level of youth abstention.

Accordingly, the overwhelming majority of polls released prior to the June British election showed the Conservatives increasing their parliamentary majority. Many of the British pundits went further – predicting a massive collapse in Labour support across the country.

Didn’t happen.

Young British voters had learned from the experience of 2015. They understood that if Jeremy Corbyn’s “For the Many, Not the Few” manifesto promises were ever to be honoured, then they would have to get out and vote for them. Which is exactly what they did – in numbers far surpassing the youth turnout of 2015. Support for the Labour Party surged. Teresa May lost her parliamentary majority.

The moral of the story is pretty bloody clear: VOTE!

You can enrol, and vote, at your nearest Advance Voting polling station (check out their locations at ) right up until 22 September. It is NOT possible to enrol on Election Day itself (Saturday, 23 September) so – VOTE EARLY.

And once you’ve enrolled and voted, make sure everyone you know, who’s 18 and over, and wants to change the government, GOES OUT AND DOES THE SAME.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 16 September 2017.

Friday 15 September 2017

One Picture: Toby Morris's Brilliant Take On National's Attack Strategy.

Auckland cartoonist Toby Morris has produced this superb pictorial commentary on National's campaign tactics. His chilling adaptation of the Nat's "Winning Runners" television ad exposes the class warfare which, when all the superficialities are stripped away, constitutes the dark matter of every general election.

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

A Second Chance For Labour To Put Things Left.

Victory Lies Ahead, Comrades! Allowing the Greens to make the case for change; assessing the force and quality of the Right’s objections; and then, following a period of extensive consultation, fashioning a suite of reforms acceptable to a solid majority of New Zealanders. Such is the royal-road to making Labour the dominant force in New Zealand politics.

IT’S NOT OFTEN in electoral politics that a party is given a second chance to get it right. In 1999, Labour and the Alliance (with the Greens more-or-less in tow) were gifted the chance to craft a political relationship that could have grown into a near-permanent lock on New Zealand’s still-new MMP electoral system. That neither partner in the Labour-Alliance coalition had the wit to seize, or even understand, the opportunity before them is a testament to the woeful immaturity of the New Zealand Left.

Perhaps the best way to describe the opportunity missed by Labour and the Alliance (and, after 2002, the Greens) is by deploying a military analogy.

Think of Labour as a large army marching through enemy territory. (The analogy works best if the army you’re imagining is a nineteenth century one – think of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, or Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.) The much smaller army of the Alliance is spread out well ahead of Labour’s line of march. Its role: to reconnoitre the territory into which Labour is marching; noting the disposition of the enemy’s troops; their strongpoints; and the places where their defences are weak and vulnerable to attack. Should the enemy encounter the smaller force, the resulting engagement will give the larger army plenty of time to prepare its defences.

For a while, it looked as though the Labour-Alliance combination had decided to work in precisely this fashion. The radical policies of the Alliance – especially those relating to employer-funded Paid Parental Leave and the rolling-back of the Employment Contracts Act – provoked a vehement backlash from the business community. Labour was, thereby, warned in advance of exactly where and how the enemy would attack these measures if they were adopted as official government policy.

Unfortunately, Labour failed to make good strategic use of this advance warning. When the business community’s counterattack came (in the form of the infamous “Winter of Discontent” of the year 2000) Labour fell back in confusion. The Alliance’s policies were slaughtered. Never again would the centre-left armies of Helen Clark and Jim Anderton engage the forces of the Right across such a broad front.

Indeed, in the General Election of 2002, the forces of the centre-left found themselves fighting each other. Labour and the Greens, at loggerheads over the issue of Genetic Engineering, were unwilling to march together. Abandoned by its natural ally, Helen Clark reluctantly joined forces with Peter Dunne’s United Future Party.

Reassured that there would be no more left-wing offensives, National concentrated on reinvigorating its worn-out fighting machine and prepared to take the fight to Labour. In 2005, Labour just managed to hold them at the border. But, in 2008, National brushed aside Helen’s broken army and occupied huge swathes of Labour territory.

Nine years later, under the command of its Joan-of-Arc-like leader, Jacinda Ardern, Labour is again presented with the opportunity to take the fight to the Right. Once again, they have an opportunity to send their radical allies out ahead of their main force to draw enemy fire and provide Labour with the information required to seize the strategic initiative.

If Ms Ardern and her advisers decline to accept this second chance to put things right – or, in this context, left – then they will, once again, have denied to themselves, their party, and their radical Green allies, the opportunity of making steady progressive reform New Zealand’s political default setting.

Allowing the Greens to make the case for change; assessing the force and quality of the Right’s objections; and then, following a period of extensive and authentic public consultation, fashioning a suite of reforms acceptable to a solid majority of New Zealanders. Such is the royal-road to making Labour the dominant force in New Zealand politics.

The test will be whether or not Ms Ardern is willing to follow the example of her mentor Helen Clark. In 1999, with the Greens under sustained attack from National, Ms Clark tipped the wink to Labour’s Coromandel supporters to give their electorate vote to the Green co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons.

If, next week, the Greens are still at risk of falling below the 5 percent MMP threshold, and Ms Ardern tips the wink to Labour’s Wellington Central voters to back James Shaw, then we can be sure that the forces of Centre-Left are, once again, on the march.

This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 September 2017.

Thursday 14 September 2017

This Is Still A Fight: Some Thoughts On The Newshub-Reid Research Poll.

Enough of "Let's do this", Jacinda. It's time to say "Let's do them!" Labour thought it could bluff its way through this election with warm fuzzies and vague promises. They assumed that these would be enough because the electorate has grown weary of the National Government. Well, the Newshub-Reid Research Poll has reminded them in no uncertain terms that this is still a fight.

FIRST OF ALL, it’s just one poll. And, one poll does not a Labour election loss portend. RNZ’s Poll of Polls which averages out the results of the three or four most recent polls, presents a considerably calmer picture. In a nutshell, National and Labour are level-pegging; NZ First and the Greens are drifting dangerously close to the 5 percent MMP threshold; the Maori Party looks set to take two seats; Act just one; and the rest (including The Opportunity Party) simply aren’t in the race.

Even so. The latest Newshub-Reid Research Poll has delivered a pretty solid kidney-punch to the Centre-Left’s morale. What had begun to feel like a smooth escalator ride to certain victory has been brought to a sudden, stomach-lurching halt. The Nat’s are sitting pretty on 47 percent – enough, with the Greens out of the running, to let them govern on their own.

The cynical genius of the Crosby-Textor pairing has armed the National Party with a pretty serviceable baseball bat and they are swinging it hard. Frustratingly, that Nat bat has been carved out of Labour’s errors. In a fine example of Crosby-Textor’s standard operating procedure. National’s fightback strategy zeroes-in on Labour’s point of maximum vulnerability: their MPs’ abiding fear of stating clearly what it is that they intend to do – and how they intend to pay for it.

Instead of responding to National’s “Let’s Tax This” jibe with a resounding “Hell, Yeah!”, Jacinda has been persuaded to double-down on the Little-led Labour Party’s “keep it vague until the election’s safely won” strategy. The Tax Working Group was supposed to save Labour’s blushes by placating voters with the promise of wise and disinterested expertise. Clearly, the party strategists failed to read the Brexit Memo. Had they done so, they would have been alerted to the fact that the electorate’s faith in “expert opinion” has grown rather thin of late. The stock response of 2017 voters to the prospect of having their future decided by a committee of experts is: “Whose experts will they be?” and “Which side will they be working for?”

Forced to rule out more and more of the promised Working Group’s most predictable recommendations, Jacinda has been made to look as if she already knows what her committee’s findings are going to be – but is reluctant to tell us. This merely reinforces the doubts National has been at such pains to sow. Tactically, her position is grim. As Paddy Gower observes:

“Part of Labour’s problem is that it keeps ruling certain tax variations out during heavy interviews. That keeps the story going. And the problem now is there is no way out for Labour – it cannot backtrack on this. It has to take its vague tax policy all the way to the election – and National will hack at it every step of the way. Labour must find a way out of the tax vortex. Suggestions on back of an envelope to J. Ardern of Mt Albert please.”

Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough time for snail mail. So, Jacinda, please accept the following as my best shot at describing “a way out of the tax vortex”.

Strategically, Labour’s best bet is to go on the offensive over tax. Not by responding to endless challenges to rule this or that tax out of contention, but by reminding voters why they pay taxes in the first place. Give it to the voters straight. That if they want better health care, better education, more affordable housing, improved mental health services and clean rivers and streams, then they cannot avoid the question of how all these things are to be paid for. Tell them that Labour’s Tax Working Group will be asked to come up with the fairest ways to gather revenue, but also tell them that they should not be in any doubt that gathering-in more revenue is, simply, what her government has to do if it is to fulfil its promises to repair the damage wrought by nine years of National rule.

Jacinda should remind the electorate that the determination of tax policy: how much should be gathered, and from whom; goes to the very heart of the democratic tradition. It’s why Kings were required to summon Parliaments. It provided the rallying cry for the American Revolution: “No taxation without representation!” Taxes are the price we pay for civilisation – and democracy.

And then she should turn her attention to the farmers. Because, with their bare-faced lies and angry demonstrations, they have shown the rest of New Zealand exactly why a Working Group to improve the fairness of our taxation system is needed. The farming sector’s dirty dairying has been subsidised by urban taxpayers for long enough. A reasonable contribution from farmers to the cost of cleaning up the waterways they have so recklessly befouled is only fair. Jacinda should invite all those who believe farmers should pay a water tax to join her and James Shaw outside the headquarters of Federated Farmers in Wellington. The spiteful decision of Waikato cow-cockies to protest in Jacinda’s home-town of Morrinsville should be answered in kind.

Labour thought it could bluff its way through this election with warm fuzzies and vague promises. They assumed that these would be enough because the electorate has grown weary of the National Government. Well, the Newshub-Reid Research Poll has reminded them in no uncertain terms that this is still a fight.

The National Party doesn’t do surrender. It understands what the Centre-Left appears to have forgotten: that every general election involves a deliberate intensification of what Labour’s founders referred to unashamedly as “the class struggle”. Or, in the words of Leonard Cohen: “the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.”

“Sunny Ways” have taken Jacinda a long way, but now it is time for her to unleash a blast of true arctic fury. “Fear and lying” is a good start, but, to put it bluntly, at this point in the campaign Labour’s voters are in need of a much more visceral morale boost. The opportunity is there to deliver a blunt message to all those who believe that taxes are what other people pay.

National’s friends in the countryside have raised their hands against “Let’s do this”. It’s time to show them what it means.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 13 September 2017.

Tuesday 12 September 2017

A Song For The Times

 “We will not give up. We will not give in. We will not give way, because the hour is too late, the threats are multiplying. The storm is rising and the Green Party is the only party that is ready and willing to meet it.”

James Shaw - Green Party Leader

Video of The Doors Riders On The Storm courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.