26 April 2015

Do we really support genocide denial?

It's sad to see Turkey's dictator lash out at those world leaders who have publicly acknowledged the Armenian genocide of 1915. Turkish President Erdoğan is an authoritarian leader. He can try to ban references to the genocide at home, but he is having little success in banning it globally. After all, the Pope and the Presidents of France and Germany have, among others, used 'the g-word' recently. France's President Hollande even attended the centennial commemoration in Yerevan, Armenia.
There's little value in claiming that the Germans are in no position to accuse Turkey of genocide. Germany has owned up to its past, and so, of all countries, Germany ought to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. The Ottoman Empire was allied to Germany in the War in 1915 when the atrocities happened. Germany has a special obligation to recognise these events for what they were, regardless of how much Turkey's leaders criticise them in reply.
Of course, New Zealand remains officially silent on the genocide. This is because our government does not want to be banned from Gallipoli commemorations. According to one Turkish news website, Turkey’s president Erdoğan compared the numbers of leaders attending events for the Battle of Gallipoli in Çanakkale and those for the genocide remembrance in Yerevan. “Two heads of states went there [in Yerevan]. Thank God, 20 heads of state came to us,” he said. His guests included our PM, John Key, as well as Prince Charles.
Clearly our PM's attendance at Çanakkale gives moral support to the genocide-deniers in Turkey. How long can this hypocrisy go on? Do New Zealanders really wish to remain silent about the mass murder of 1.5 million people just so they can continue to attend Gallipoli? When we say 'Lest we forget', referring to our fallen, why do we forget the victims of the genocide that was happening in the same country at the same time?

25 April 2015

Is Key in the same boat as Len Brown?

There are significant differences, and also similarities, between Key's hair-pulling incident and Len Brown's infidelity.
In both cases, the story emerged as a statement by the woman concerned on a blog site, and not initially through mainstream media. In both cases, the facts as published online were not disputed by the man who was accused of inappropriate behaviour. And, in both cases, the blogger was obviously politically motivated, seeking to damage, if not pull down, their target.
Both stories involve a top political leader in his 50s and a much younger woman. And the public reactions to both vary greatly: from 'Disgusting, the man should stand down', to 'I don't really care'.
In both cases, Graham McCready got involved as a private prosecutor. The courts threw out his case against Len Brown, concerning alleged corruption. Mr McCready is reported to be laying a complaint of sexual harassment with the Human Rights Commission, but I would guess that that one will be declined too, if the parties concerned (Mr Key and the waitress) consider the matter resolved.
In both cases, the woman, as target (or victim) of an older man's attentions, has her name and image dragged through the media, and is ruthlessly used for political ends. We are left with questions about the subordination and exploitation of women.
Of course there are important differences too. Mr Brown's affair involved extra-marital sexual activity that went a lot further in terms of physical intimacy. This was apparently consensual, and no accusation of harassment was made. But it also raised deeper moral concerns about his trustworthiness as a married man, and many people drew a parallel with his trustworthiness as mayor.
In Mr Key's case, hair-pulling is hardly the height of sexual intimacy, but it was not consensual touching. That behaviour does, on the face of it, fit the definition of sexual harassment in the Human Rights Act, as it was unwelcome and repeated. 'Just joking' doesn't let you off the hook.
Both leaders have suffered severe political and personal embarrassment from these stories. So, the main political question is: What does this do to their reputations and political viability?
Despite the aims of the blogger who released the story of Mr Brown's affair, and despite demands from a sector of the public and from the NZ Herald, the mayor has not stood down. But he has suffered a lot of political damage, and financial and electoral support have declined. Mr Brown remains in office, but would not win re-election in 2016 if he stands again.
I have said in the past that it would be a pity if Mr Brown had stood down, as that would have been giving in to, and hence rewarding, muckraking and political blackmail. So, to be consistent, perhaps I should say the same about Mr Key as a serial hair-puller, creepy though that may be. Why reward the Daily Blog with a prime scalp?
It seems unlikely to me, at this stage, that 'ponytailgate' makes Key un-re-electable in 2017. It may make him reconsider his desire to stay on as PM, given the extent of international ridicule and invective arising from this incident. But this story does not evoke the same level of conservative distrust in him as a man, and hence as a leader, that the Len Brown story evoked. Hypocritical though it may be, sexual harassment is a left-liberal preoccupation, while marital infidelity (if publicly revealed) is anathema to the conservative right.

19 April 2015

Be afraid...!

Fear is money, if you work in the security business. And drumming up business is as easy as saying 'boo!'
We are advised by an expert in security and 'extreme events' that, because NZ is a soft target for terrorists, and not at all immune to attacks, we need to harden up. Hardening up could mean that you go through metal detectors and bag-searches at malls and movie theatres, and that you get monitored more frequently than ever by CCTV, including facial-recognition software. This is the kind of thing we are used to at airports, so why not?
There must be a huge international business sector out there supplying expertise, personnel, software and hardware, and its growth opportunities must be looking good at the moment, given the salience of terrorism. New Zealand is clearly an immature market, ripe for expansion. All you have to do is remind the public of how vulnerable they are to a rare and unexpected attack, and they will accept the 'services' of this industry without complaint. Responsible retail businesses will invest in them as a part of their risk management practices. I'm sure that someone has already spotted that such security measures are necessitated by the health and safety law. I anticipate bag-checks on all my students at lecture-room doors. ('Please leave your hand guns at the door, and switch off your phones'). The sky's the limit.
Yes, of course a terrorist attack is possible here. In fact, we have already had one or two. So, we are not complacent.
Ironically, though, when the next attack happens, our leaders will tell us not to be afraid, but to go about our normal business, otherwise we let terror win. If you follow the precautionary advice of the academic spokesperson for the security business marketing departments, however, then you already have allowed the fear of terrorists to change the way you live. Don't forget that someone's making a buck out of your fears, though, so it's all for the good of the economy!

11 April 2015

New Zealand's official silence on the Armenian genocide

On 25 April, New Zealanders will commemorate the centenary of the disastrous and ill-conceived Allied invasion of the Ottoman Empire at Anzac Cove. The Turkish government will host NZ officials and visitors at the key sites near Gallipoli. In return for this hospitality, the Turkish government gets New Zealand's official silence on the sensitive matter of the genocide of Armenians that occurred at the same time as the Gallipoli campaign. In Turkey it is a crime to discuss the mass-murder of (an estimated) 1.5 million Armenians in 1915, and Turkey reacts angrily to any foreign country that recognises that these atrocities amounted to genocide. Members of the New South Wales parliament were threatened with a ban from attending the centenary commemorations at Gallipoli due to motions passed unanimously by that parliament in 2013 officially recognising the Armenian genocide.
In contrast, New Zealanders will be welcome at Gallipoli to commemorate the insane invasion that happened there a century ago. But the price we pay is the hypocrisy of refusing to tell the whole story of what was going on in Turkey at the time. The then Ottoman Empire had entered the war in 1914 as an ally of Germany, and had fought without success against the Russians. Those losses and the Allies' invasion of April 1915 gave the Turks reason to see their nation as under an existential threat at that time. The Christian Armenian community was seen as an internal threat, and as potential supporters of the Russians. But this can hardly justify the (now well documented) officially sanctioned campaign to exterminate the Armenians.
New Zealand prides itself on its support for humanitarian actions, for instance in seeking action on the Rwandan genocide in 1994. But the NZ government will never dare use 'the g-word' in any reference to Turkish Armenians, for fear of attracting the ire of the Turkish government, and so being banned from Gallipoli.
How long will this hypocrisy go on? Presumably it will go on for as long as New Zealanders wish to live out a retrospective fantasy of 'national identity' and 'honour and sacrifice' every 25 April. While they remember 2,779 New Zealanders lost at Gallipoli, will they spare a thought for 1.5 million Armenians who were murdered in mass graves or marched through deserts to their deaths? No, they won't. They certainly won't like to think that the Allied invasion of April 1915 played a part in the events that led to the genocide.

02 April 2015

Is ACT now irrelevant?

With only 0.69% of the party vote at the 2014 election, and holding on to one electorate seat by the grace and favour of John Key, is the Act Party doomed to political debt-slavery under National and eventual extinction, or does it have a chance of revival? Between the 1999 and 2002 elections, ACT used to score above 7% and had 9 MPs. That gave it some clout and voice in parliament. There is a chance that, as National's support ebbs away, some of that right-wing vote may head back to ACT, and so the party's stocks may rise. This assumes that ACT's recent poor polling is due largely to National's success under Key's leadership. But it's a long haul for ACT to get back over the 5% threshold and to escape from dependency upon National for its hold on Epsom. There is also the chance that, once National lose office, the Epsom deal may be dropped, and ACT will die at the following election.
ACT's founding principles of individual responsibility, free-market economy and limited government are not altogether foreign to New Zealanders. But ACT's particularly dry version of those principles has been proven to be a little too extreme to gain wider support. The party's founders, Sir Roger Douglas (ex-Labour) and Derek Quigley (ex-National) are indelibly associated with 'Rogernomics', the radical reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, and very few New Zealanders have an appetite for more of that. Later, under Rodney Hide, ACT resorted instead to populist topics like tougher sentencing in order to gain attention. But it simply hasn't worked. And antics like the take-over of the party by Don Brash and John Banks in April 2011 have not helped the party to build a credible brand.
For the time being it suits National to keep ACT hanging on in Epsom, along with United Future in Ohariu. Between them, those two minor parties soaked up a mere 0.9% of the party vote in 2014, but they delivered to National two supporting seats, thus providing the majority needed to govern. That's relatively good value for National. And all that it takes is a nod and a wink to the voters in those two electorates.
Only about 1,000 people gave their party vote to ACT in Epsom in 2014, but nearly 16,000 voted for the ACT candidate, David Seymour, thus giving him a majority of 4,250. That means that 15,000 National-supporting Epsom voters followed Mr Key like good sheep to ensure that the ACT brand remained in parliament.
Mr Seymour is hardly the kind of strong or charismatic figure who can lead ACT out of its electoral dilemma. So, that party may last a couple more elections, but it's heading for oblivion.

31 March 2015

Northland's blind date


While 54% of Northland voters knew they were voting for Winston Peters last Saturday, what they didn’t know was who else, if anyone, they were bringing into parliament. Before the by-election, Mr Peters made no clear statement as to whether or not he would vacate his list seat and, if so, who on his party’s list would replace him.
If he did not resign as a list member after his victory, parliament’s numbers would drop from 121 to 120. That would have saved the taxpayer one parliamentary salary. It’s now apparent, from public statements, that Peters does intend to vacate his list seat, probably after he is sworn in as member for Northland. This means that NZ First’s numbers in the House will rise from 11 to 12. But we have yet to learn who on their party list will take up the vacancy.
The next on the party’s official list is Ria Bond of Invercargill. But she does not automatically become the next list MP. That depends on whether she is still eligible and willing to serve in parliament. So, the new list MP has to be determined, with no mandate from voters, by negotiation between the NZ First board and those waiting in line on the party’s list.
Whoever gets into parliament will not have got there by means of an election, but only as a secondary consequence of a by-election. And Northlanders who voted for Mr Peters were not able to tell what those consequences would be at the time they voted.
The double irony is that Winston Peters would have remained as an MP and leader of NZ First regardless of whether he won or lost the Northland by-election. And, in voting for him as their MP, Northlanders did not know (and perhaps did not care) who the new MP would be. Had they elected Mr Osborne, on the other hand, matters would have been much simpler.

28 March 2015

Winston Peters humiliates National up north


Winston Peters has proved political pundits spectacularly wrong in Northland, his home turf. A decisive 54% vote in his favour means that the latest pre-election opinion polls were close to the mark, and that early predictions of an easy National win were proven drastically wrong.
On the prediction-trading website iPredict, the price for betting on ‘National candidate to win Northland by-election’ dropped from around 90 cents in the first week of March to well below 20 cents by the Saturday of the by-election itself. Smirks on National supporters’ faces turned to alarm as opinion polls first showed Winston level with National’s newby candidate, and then had him streaking ahead. Quite a few people blew their money by punting on National. So, what went wrong?
In the 2014 General Election, only about 4,500 (12.7%) gave their party vote to NZ First. Because NZ First did not have a candidate in that election, which candidate did they vote for as a ‘second preference’? About two thirds of them ticked the Labour candidate. Far fewer went to National’s candidate and to the others. So, on that base of support for NZ First, there was a stronger cross-affiliation between Labour and NZ First than between National and NZ First.
But, because National’s former MP, Mike Sabin, got 52% support as candidate, in order to win the by-election, Mr Peters had to pull votes away from National as well as from the left – or at least hope that a lot of erstwhile National supporters stayed at home. The left-wing voters, if they ganged up against National and voted for Peters, were not numerically strong enough to get Peters across the line on their own.
So, Peters had the challenge of appealing to both the right and the left of the spectrum. And he totally out-classed the inexperienced Mr Osborne on the campaign trail. NZ First lacked National’s street-level organizational forces, including troops brought in from Auckland, to rally voters on the day. So, the result in favour of Mr Peters has to be attributed to his own widely recognised persona, his street-level campaigning, and his effective use of the media.
On the day, though, the turnout was significantly lower than at the general election, so it’s hard to draw quick conclusions about how many voters switched allegiances and how many just stayed at home. But it’s safe to say that those who had previously supported the Labour candidate, Willow-Jean Prime, mostly voted tactically for Peters, and probably many Green supporters did too. Peters probably stole quite a number of erstwhile National supporters, but many of them perhaps didn’t vote at all. The differences from last year’s Labour, Green and ‘other’ voters almost add up to Winston’s 15,359 votes. But it seems unlikely that he did not also benefit from a good number of defections from the National camp.
Labour came in for criticism for doing an Epsom-style maneuver, more or less telling their supporters not to waste their votes on the Labour candidate, but to give it to Peters. Labour were already committed, however, to fielding a candidate by the time it became obvious that Peters could win. So Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime could not be withdrawn from the ballot. In any case, Labour needed to keep their candidate and their party in the race, and not to let down their staunchest supporters.
The by-election would not have happened at all had National not fielded Mark Sabin as their candidate at last year’s election. His standing down, under unexplained circumstances, triggered the by-election. National thought they could sleep-walk to victory, but they hadn’t counted on Peters as a potential candidate. The National Party ended up in the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t corner, thanks to a series of electoral blunders. And they couldn’t fight their way out of it because their candidate simply couldn’t overcome the Peters effect.