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.

15 March 2015

Did Winston write the 1080 letters?

Minister for primary industries, Nathan Guy, did quite a nice job of explaining the government's handling of the 1080 blackmail on Q&A. But he is doing all the explaining. And, as they say in politics, explaining is losing. Meanwhile the blackmailer (or 'traitor', or 'terrorist'?) is either watching with glee as this all erupts, or (if he/she/they has/have half a conscience) wishing that the earth would open up and swallow him/her/them.
There is now a strong body of opinion that the government should not have announced the threat at all, especially as we were simultaneously assured that the matter is under control and there is no present danger to public health.
Rather like the blunder of bribing Northlanders with promises of new bridges (which National will have to build now, regardless of whether they win or lose Northland!), the government has now put itself in a completely ridiculous position having gone public over the 1080 threat. It has to defend a decision that could adversely affect their natural constituencies (dairy farmers, producers and exporters), a decision that probably didn't need to be taken at all, as it responds to what was most likely an empty threat! In any case, 1080 drops will not be affected by this blackmail attempt, as that would surely be 'bowing down to terrorism'! So, why the urgent public announcement for something that they want us to believe can only be a fizzer?
This looks like a government that has lost its will to govern, has no new ideas, is constantly on the defensive, and ends up scoring own goals.
Oddly enough, though, NZ First policy is even more anti-1080 than the Greens are. Winston Peters has some work to do to prove that he isn't the blackmailer! Now, there's a conspiracy theory!

02 March 2015

MPs' salary raise: Now you see it, now you don't.

John Key is taking desperate measures to kill the negative public reaction against 5.5% pay-rises for MPs as set down by the Remuneration Authority.
The Government's hastily announced amendment of the Remuneration Authority Act will link MPs' salary increments to those in the wider public sector. It will be retrospective (to block the back-dated 5.5% increase), and will be passed under urgency. Mr Key and his Cabinet may genuinely believe that the Remuneration Authority's determination was unmerited, too large compared with average income trends in the economy, and hence only advancing inequality in society. But this sudden reversal smacks of desperation. A politically embarrassing pay-rise for MPs has to be blocked, it appears, without delay.
Ironically, the Remuneration Authority was set up to make politicians' pay determinations independent of the politicians themselves. Now we see the most heavy-handed political interference possible in a democracy: parliament will just legislate the embarrassment away. Proposing retrospective legislation shows that Key is willing to break constitutional convention to achieve his aims. And yet, no-one has bothered to prove that the Authority got it wrong and made an unreasonable decision. It just sounded bad on TV, that's all. So, Parliament will simply over-ride it, retrospectively. It will be interesting to see if any party dares to vote against the proposed amendment!
It's still a moot point, though, as to how much MPs should be paid. They are not employees; there is no job description and no person specification. They are not hired; they are elected. They work long hours, are almost always 'on call', and sacrifice a lot of family time. They have to 'reapply' for the role every three years, so there's no long-term job security. Mr Key makes a good point that one doesn't go into public life just for the money, but, on the other hand, it is a demanding job that requires many skills. It does seem to warrant a higher income than most of us get.
The Government wants to legislate away the Authority's discretion and to peg future increases solely to the average public sector pay increase for the previous year. This sounds quite reasonable – at first hearing. But one can foresee a problem: If, for some reason in future, it is widely agreed that MPs' salaries have not risen fast enough (say, for recruitment and retention reasons, and given the responsibilities entailed), then Parliament may want to repeal the presently proposed amendment and loosen up the Authority's discretion again. But no political party will have the courage to propose that, due to the inevitable public backlash. As they say, rushed law is likely to turn into bad law.
We want to see our most talented people in Parliament, but the best candidates are not all independently wealthy. So, will the proposed amendment to the law aid in encouraging the best leaders to run for office in the future?

01 March 2015

Northland voters carry big responsibility

The Northland by-election happens on 28 March. Under normal conditions, the National candidate, Mark Osborne, could sleep-walk to victory, given the 9,300 majority for former National MP, Mike Sabin, at the 2014 General Election. But, now that Winston Peters has put his hat in the ring, things have changed. If Mr Peters were to win, and were then to resign as a list MP, he would re-enter Parliament as the MP for Northland, and his list seat would be taken by the next willing candidate on NZ First's party list. Hence, NZ First's seats would increase by one, and National's decrease by one.
That would change the balance of power in the House, leaving National more heavily reliant on United Future and Maori Party for passing laws. (I assume that ACT is pretty much National's lapdog.)
But what are Mr Peters' chances of winning? He has the charisma and the name recognition, and the advantage of being a Whananaki boy.
NZ First didn't run a candidate in Northland at the last election, but they picked up 4,500 party votes anyway. That's not a bad start. But it looks like most of those NZF voters gave their candidate vote to Labour's Willow-Jean Prime (who is re-contesting at the by-election).
Assuming Northland gets the same level of voter turn-out at the by-election, then we could generously assume that Winston starts with 4,500 voters in his pocket. (And that's also assuming that none of those will vote for the Labour candidate). To win, then, Peters has to take roughly 7,000 voters away from the National candidate, reducing National's vote from 18,200 to 11,200, and increasing his own from 4,500 to 11,500.
Once Northland's more conservative, National-supporting voters realise the consequences of voting for Winston, it seems highly unlikely that 7,000 of them will follow him like some Pied Piper. There is not enough popular discontent with the Key government at this stage for those otherwise loyal to Key to want to stymie him, or 'to send him a message', at a by-election.
Of course, Peters could pick up a good number of those who otherwise vote Labour or Green, seeing in him an opportunity to undermine the Key government. But, at the last election, the Labour and Green candidates added together got about 12,600 votes. That's considerably fewer than Sabin's 18,200. Even if we assume that Mr Peters' 'handicap' starts at (a very generous) 8,000 voters taken from the left, he still has a huge job winning more than 5,000 from the right at the same time.
One learns from the past not to underestimate Mr Peters. But, on this occasion, I doubt that he can pull it off. The safe money would be on a National win. IPredict says it all.
If he loses, Mr Peters at least gains a chance to attract attention to himself. That may help him to build up some support for the 2017 general election, by which time his embarrassing defeat will have been forgotten anyway. It will be interesting to see whether he pitches to the left or to the right of the Northland electorate. He can lean either way.