23 April 2014

Shane's heart wasn't in it

Shane Jones's decision to leave politics was made, according to the man himself, on the grounds that his heart wasn't in the job. And perhaps the public are better off if any other parliamentarian whose heart is not in the job would follow Jones's example. So good on him for being honest. Moreover, he clearly would not have been comfortable working with the Greens, so any future Labour–Green coalition would have been difficult with him in it. On the other hand, he had the ability to reach out to Winston Peters, in the case that Labour would have to do a deal with NZ First.
Unfortunately for Labour, though, Jones's sudden departure sends negative signals, even if Jones never intended it that way. First, it comes across as a vote of no confidence in Labour by Jones. And it risks alienating some of the middle-of-the-road male voters that Jones was able to appeal to. The resignation lances a boil for Labour, from one point of view, but, from another, it shows up all too clearly where the infection lies: that is, in the ideological split within Labour between pro-growth centrism and a more Green-friendly alternative-progressive direction.
Labour is not only losing a politician who was popular with many on the left (and unpopular with many too, it must be admitted). Jones's decision to leave – following a job offer from a National minister – will be seen by many voters as 'jumping from the sinking ship.' Shane Jones has done National a big favour.
The timing was ironic too: just as Labour were going after Judith Collins, the Nats were quietly white-anting Labour's front-bench and wooing Jones away.

22 April 2014

Should Collins lose her ministerial portfolios?

The Cabinet Manual contains quite clear guidelines for ministers on conflicts of interest. It clearly spells out that ministerial status or privileges should not be used – or should not even appear to be used – in the furtherance of the private interests of ministers' family or friends. That would have been obvious even if it were not written down in the Manual. Public perception of a conflict of interest can be as important as any material preferential treatment or insider dealing.
Judith Collins is now in a position where, partly due to her own handling of the Oravida scandal, the public perception of, and reporters' questions about, a conflict of interest have gotten out of her control. While the Prime Minister, on Radio NZ this morning, was saying he still has confidence in her as a minister, he said that the Cabinet Office has advised that Collins did allow a perception of conflict of interest to arise. The PM would not answer the question of how he would rate her handling of the affair, and tried to deflect the blame onto Labour for persisting with the issue just to play politics. That leaves me with the impression that he does not rate her handling of the affair very highly.
So, the PM admits that the perception of a conflict of interest was created by the minister. And this alone is contrary to the standards laid down in the Cabinet Manual. Now, the Manual is not law, but it does set out the accepted understandings of cabinet conventions and ministerial conduct. Ms Collins' behaviour has not maintained those standards, and it would be prudent for her to stand down from cabinet at least for the time being while the scandal resolves itself, and possibly until after the election.
There are two obvious reasons why Ms Collins was not 'gone by lunchtime': the PM would not want to buy an internal fight over her removal from office; and the PM would not want to allow the Opposition to claim the scalp of a senior minister. I wonder if another reason is that the PM had miscalculated that the matter would have died down by now.
The PM is right that Labour will play this tune ad nauseam for political reasons; but equally his refusal to remove the minister from office is for political reasons. Mr Key is saying that he has confidence in Ms Collins, but the fact that he even has to say that just shows us that this affair is causing damage. 
If this scandal is still making the political news by early May, then it will begin to interfere with pre-Budget announcements, and potentially with Budget day itself (15 May). That's the political risk that the PM now has to reckon with. Does this story have the legs to run for that long?

13 April 2014

Labour's rejection of the Greens' pre-electoral offer

Labour's rejection of the Greens' pre-electoral offer to campaign in collaboration has caused some controversy among left-wing commentators, but let's look at what signals it sends.
The Greens' offer, even though it was rejected, has had a certain benefit for them. It has flushed Labour's true position out into the open. Now that left-wing voters can clearly see that Labour is contemplating putting post-electoral negotiations with NZ First ahead of any with the Greens, then it's likely that the Greens will probably steal a few undecided voters away from Labour. That's smart politics.
Labour's rejection says to us that their strategists have given up on the possibility of the Labour-plus-Green party votes being sufficient to get the numbers to govern. They predict that, if they have any chance of forming a government, they will have to talk with Winston Peters.
If Labour had accepted the Greens' offer, then Peters would have criticised both parties for doing back-room deals before the voters get their say, and he would have had to distance himself from them both. It would have annoyed him that one of his post-electoral options (a Labour–NZ First coalition) had suddenly become less likely, thus weakening his potential bargaining-power vis-a-vis National.
NZ First, as the centrist party, will most likely have options post-election, and Peters wants to keep those options open. Apparently, Labour wants to keep its options open too, so Labour won't throw its lot in with the Greens before the election. They are just being pragmatic about that.
If Labour have a shot at forming the next government, it would probably be NZ First to whom they have to offer the biggest baubles. After all, the Greens have no option but to support a Labour-led government. (Imagine the reaction if the Greens were responsible for letting National rule again!) So the Greens can be kept on hold. But Green voters need not be despondent about that, because the strong electoral results that the Green Party gets are probably thanks to their never having been in government! Supporting a government is usually electorally disastrous for minor parties.
All of this makes me ask why there is not (yet) a strong-ish minor party to the right of National, mirroring the Greens. After all, MMP does seem to encourage niche parties. ACT has fizzled out. But the Conservatives look like they are aiming to fill that space, especially once the John Key era comes to an end, as it inevitably must. The future contest will be whether the right-wing party is ideologically conservative or libertarian. ACT has shown that it's impossible to be both at once.
Getting back to Labour and the Greens, the MMP system, and the voters who participate in it, are probably better off having clear and distinct party brands that compete for their votes. Pre-electoral collaborations are not ideal. And in that I include those murky deals such as we see in Epsom.
The real doozy of a shady deal, though, has to be that which is contemplated presently between Mana and the Internet Party. That takes the cake. And, to mix metaphors, it can only end in tears. Maybe I'll write more about that later.

05 April 2014

Gotta feel sorry for Labour

Hovering in the low 30s in the opinion polls, and looking unlike a government-in-waiting, Labour can only watch with chagrin as the economic recovery gets moving. Oppositions love bad news, but the economy isn't supplying any. Labour may cling to the straws of rising interest rates and their impact on household budgets, even though a change of government will do nothing to bring interest rates down.
And then, last week, just to really piss the left off, an international social-indicators agency rated New Zealand as the world's 'most socially progressive nation,' beating even the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland, not to mention Australia. That's ironic news, coming while National is in office. Aren't the Nats supposed to be the scourge of all good socially-responsible and progressive policies?
OK, social indicators are not an exact science, and we could easily question the methodology used by the Social Progress Index. But leave that to the academics. What matters politically are the headlines, such as the Herald's. Any talk of how our social well-being is going down the gurgler thanks to neo-liberal policies and the accompanying poverty and inequality is now going to sound hollow.
So, who produces this Social Progress Index anyway? Well, they are a collection of globe-trotting do-gooders and philanthro-capitalists of the kind you might meet at UN development conferences or the World Economic Forum. And the leading adviser is Prof Michael Porter of Harvard, the same guy who co-authored a report on how NZ could increase its economic competitiveness, back in 1991. It looks like he is one of those business-know-best gurus who's had a post-GFC enlightenment and now wonders how countries can compete to become more socially progressive. Let's wish him luck. But I'm not sure that we ever needed his help.
By the way, if it makes you feel any better, NZ ranks only 28th out of 151 countries in the New Economics Foundation's Happy Planet Index. But there's a reason for that, one which Green voters will gloat over. The HPI divides well-being indicators by ecological footprint.
A lot depends on what you measure and why, and what formula you use!

Setting the record straight

Dear readers (both of you),
Since it's election year and questions are being asked about biased bloggers, I thought I should set out a few points about how this blog works:
I do not belong to a political party.
No-one feeds me stories.
I'm not a journalist.
I'm not convinced that having political bloggers regulated by the Press Council will make this country a better place, or make elections freer and fairer. But I'm willing to listen to reasoned arguments.
I do own a copy of Mein Kampf, and it shares my bookshelf with Marx's Capital vol. 1.
I am biased, because I'm human.
Facts and principles should be clarified before we launch into opinions, however.
Most bloggers think their opinions are more important than they really are. And that's why we blog!