Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Did Gareth Morgan At Ratana Just Demonstrate Political Nous?

Having witnessed yesterday's excitement at Ratana, I am starting to wonder whether Gareth Morgan may actually be a surprisingly good political strategist.

Consider this: year in and year out, New Zealand First manages to cobble together an impressively diverse coalition of opinion ranging from rednecks to Rangatiratanga enthusiasts. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that the Party's strongest performing electorate seats are in fact the Maori Seats [seriously - look it up], while simultaneously the Hobson's Pledge organization offers us money.

It's not always easy keeping these two sectors of voter opinion on-side and moving in the same direction - particularly when the rhetoric required to wrangle them can wind up being fairly diametrically opposed [consider, for instance, Winston Peters angrily pointing to his personal record fighting against what he called the largest government confiscation of Maori land in history ... and then juxtapose that against his customary advocacy for going back to the legislative situation of the 2004 Foreshore & Seabed legislation - which, perhaps ironically, has *also* been called the largest Crown confiscation of Maori land in history, thanks to a legislative provision written by Winston himself].

I believe that Morgan has realized that there is an 'exploitable' fault-line here. Hence his references in his Ratana speech today to Winston and NZF's previous record.

The objective he must have in mind by drawing attention to NZF's "Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi Deletion Bill" effort from yesteryear - particularly at one of the highest political pilgrimage sites in Maoridom - must surely be to attempt to back Winston into a corner. Forcing Winston to either choose to double down upon his previous rhetoric and stances in opposition to Maori politics (with the consequent risk of alienating Maori support from NZF) - or to ameliorate his anti-'Separatism' (or "Apartheid" to use Winston's own somewhat hyperbolic wording) positioning in order to keep Maoridom on-side.

It will be interesting to see whether Morgan continues along this present line of attack for the rest of the Treaty Politics summer season. And, for that matter, in what direction (if any) this bears fruit - certainly with MANA looking to be back in contention this year, there is a possibility of NZF losing votes in other directions.

Although one could argue that Morgan's attack may represent a fundamental misreading of what we're about here in NZ First - and, for that matter, why we've continued to prove so undeniably popular to so many Maori voters and communities regardless of some of our previous actions and rhetoric.

New Zealand First stands for a unitary nationalism. Its very Caucus and membership embodies this concept (with the former being about 50% Maori, and the latter representing possibly the greatest concentration of Maori parliamentary-political activism in the recent MMP era outside of the Maori Party at its founding - seriously, attending an NZ First Convention is an exercise in applied biculturalism in more ways than one). And, as Morgan pointed out today, one in five NZ First voters are Maori. This would appear to suggest that there is a rather significant current out there in Maoridom who empathize quite strongly with what we're about.

With this in mind, it is possible that Morgan's efforts will have perhaps less impact upon NZF and our actual support base than he might anticipate - instead reprsenting something of a pantomime performance to project values to other parts of the electorate.

Besides, if the sympathetic media coverage (gosh, there's an odd phrase to be associating with Winston) from today is anything to go by - Winston may be "too big to fail" as he continues to snowball towards the Election; with intriguing points of scrutiny being as molotovs against Poseidon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Arguments In Favour Of Raising Cigarette Prices Are A Costly Smokescreen

Another year, another hike in the price of cigarettes.

This time, the first in a series of ten-percent increases that are going to hit once a year, every year, until 2020. The nominal goal for this exercise in extortion is to make New Zealand "smokefree" by 2025. Hidden in the small print is the caveat that "smokefree" in fact means less than 5% of the population smoking on a daily basis. And, slightly further into the 'small print', the revelation that simply throwing more taxation at the problem is unlikely to actually reduce consumption to the desired levels.

Meanwhile, ongoing price-increases in tobacco have already been fueling a crime-wave which targets the nation's corner dairies, liquor stores and service stations; while the burgeoning black market in tobacco sourced from both theft and illicit importing (which, incidentally, allows punters to avoid the high price of taxation completely) shows no sign of abating.

So why are we doing it then? What motivates us year in, year out to place a highly regressive tax upon some of the New Zealanders who may be least in a position to afford it? (smoking, after all, being overwhelmingly a 'pleasure of the working class')

Personally, I think we went down this road because some of our politicians - specifically those in the Maori Party - felt an overweaning need to be seen to be Doing Something about an issue. To be fair, this is an issue which DOES disproportionately affect Maori - hence presumably the supposed 'solution' of disproportionately taxing them, instead.

But irascible, 'gut-response' policy-making is rarely either perspicacious about impacts, or particularly concerned with whether a given law-change will actually stand up to close scrutiny.

That presumably explains why the latest round of tax-hikes have had such unintended consequences while seemingly being ill-fit for purpose when it came to their stated objectives.

Let's review the arguments behind the price-rises one by one.

The main argument people make in favour of placing exorbitant taxes upon smoking is that it's necessary to do so in order to raise funds to cover the extra costs to the healthcare system which a smoking population imposes upon it. This is, from where I'm sitting, a pretty good argument - and one which smacks of both justice and forward-thinking. Except that we're now in a situation wherein the average tax-take from cigarettes every year is more than three times as high as the estimated additional cost to our healthcare system of smokers. ($350 million relative to between $1.3 and $1.7 billion dollars - with this year's increase alone looking set to provide $425 million) So we've long since passed the point wherein this is a well-supported motivation for any further tax-increases. That's not to say it's necessarily a bad thing that smokers are now subsidizing quite heavily the non-smoking population's healthcare - if only because the next time somebody shoots you a dirty look, or starts fake-coughing in your presence as you're lighting up ... you'll be fully within your rights to beam at them and proudly tell them they don't have to thank you for your generosity.

But it's nevertheless somewhat disquieting that an essential state service (in the form of healthcare) has to be funded off ever-increasing levies upon a small segment of the population in lieu of properly sorting out taxes elsewhere - and we shall return to this point later.

The next argument often made for price-increases on cigs is that it's supposed to help people quit smoking. And maybe the first three or so rounds of price-increase actually did. But if you're still smoking at this point, despite the fact that a twenty-pack of cigarettes now costs about as much as an entire *bag* of roll-your-own tobacco did when this set of price-rises started [incidentally, about the time I quit smoking because I decided I'd rather spend my money on cannabis] ... then the chances are that a series of ten percent price-increases *probably* aren't going to cause you to seriously reconsider your habit. (And if you don't believe me saying it - this is actually the official position of the Heart Foundation advanced last year at Budget time when the ten percent tax-hike was last brought up)

Instead, as an addict, you're probably in a situation of regarding your cigs as what economists call a "reputed necessity" - and, as a result, the relative "inelasticity" of your consumption-pattern just means you wind up spending more of your income on the same or slightly smaller numbers of cigs.

Which is a bit of a problem for lower-income earners - as if you're using a greater proportion of your heard-earned cash on your nicotine habit (in some workplaces a virtual de-rigeur sanity-preservation tool in order to enable you to actually work the insufferable no-overtime shifts in the first place), then you've presumably got less money to spend on feeding yourself, or other items of what many now consider to be 'discretionary spending' such as visits to the doctor. (It is, of course, quite an irony that heavily subsidizing the healthcare of others might cause you to be able to access less of it yourself)

This is without mentioning the potential bugbear of low-income families having less to spend on their children - and that's something which I include in a spirit of completeness, because somebody WILL be thinking it. Not because of any belief that working class parents habitually place their own small pleasures ahead of the needs of their children - instead, it quite often seems to be diametrically the opposite.

And before the predictable retort of "well, they should just give up then" is advanced in response to the above ... that's not how reality works, unfortunately - and if we're interested in making a policy that's actually fit-for-purpose, empty moralistic platitudes in place of sound reasoning or evidence just simply won't do.

Although speaking of children ... one of the more refined forms of the above 'barrier-to-purchase' argument is that increasing the cost of cigarettes helps to keep them out of the hands of young people and children.

This is, again, a pretty nice-sounding argument. Nobody seriously thinks that children should have access to cigarettes (not that they do legally, anyway), and getting 18 year olds to defer the decision to start smoking til they're 'older and wiser' certainly doesn't seem an implicitly bad idea. Except again - there's a problem here with how the price-increases intersect with these (laudable) goals.

The expanding black market in tobacco - which has been created in no small part due to the tax-hikes - mean that it's now even easier for young people who wouldn't otherwise be legally able to buy cigarettes to come into contact with nicotine. At lower prices, too (because black-market cigarettes don't have the tax on them, inter alia, and vendors are also considerably less likely to check for ID).

So while in theory it sounds fine to make the case that a twenty five dollar packet of cigarettes is now further out of reach of a teenager who's scrabbled around to find enough pocket money to consider buying some smokes ... in practice, the reality may be very different.

Now that being said, there ARE some legislative interventions which may be of some use in reducing the rate of young people who decide to take up smoking. One of these could be instituting what's known as a raising age of purchase. The idea here would be to increase the age at which cigarettes can be legally bought by one year every year, til we reach 25 or some other arbitrary agreed-upon point at which people are mature enough to make bad decisions. (the policy could ALSO be run with no 'ceiling' to the continual increase - with a view to creating a situation in which it's pretty much impossible for subsequent generations to take up smoking, without restricting the ability of people who already are legally able to purchase from so doing).

But New Zealand, as far as I understand it, isn't looking into that - presumably because our lawmakers would much rather collect the extra taxation-revenue from an 18 year old smoking than they would actually attempt to ensure he's less able to purchase them.

Because ultimately - as I said earlier, and as I've argued in previous pieces - that's what this entire arrangement is about.

The Government, when instituting this long-running series of price-rises, had twin objectives.

First, to give their coalition partner a minor win which they could point to as evidence that shacking up with the National Party (with its attendant massive electoral cost) had actually been 'worth it'.

But second, they wished to tap a pretty sizable source of new taxation revenue. And one which, handily, isn't really allowed to complain when squeezed ever more tightly year-in and year out.

Having reviewed the evidence, it becomes fairly obviously apparent that this recent round of tax-hikes isn't really a serious stab at reducing or eliminating the prevalence of smoking in our society.

Instead, it's the hallmark of a government playing parsimony when it comes to establishing wafer-thin 'surpluses', desperately attempting to scrabble down the back of the fiscal couch in search of a few hundred million more to make the books add up.

How else to explain the fact that the state raises so many more times in revenue off cigarettes what it spends on extra healthcare for smokers. How else to interpret Customs reports which place the emphasis upon illicit tobacco imports depriving the state of revenue, rather than expressing concern about putting a potentially dangerous substance on our streets. And Regulatory Impact Statements which stress that tobacco-taxes are a "reliable" and "very efficient" means of raising revenue. Why else, in short, would the state continue to make tobacco readily available for a captive (tax-paying) market rather than simply illegalizing it if it's so genuinely worried about all our collective welfare.

It's not hard to see what's really going on here. You just have to follow the money, and look past the perfidious smokescreen.

If you want to.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

What The Hell Is Going ON With Donald Trump's #GoldenShower

The 2016 election season continues to be quite the wild ride. No matter whether one is following events through the regular media and traditional outlets, or braving the wilds of social media feeds, each new day brings some shocking "revelation"which would have seemed utterly inconceivable the day before ... yet there it is in print.

The latest of these is the airing of the contents of a report which alleges that not only has US President-Elect Donald Trump been fairly actively in-cahoots with the Russians this entire time (again); but that this remarkable degree of hypothetical co-operation has been achieved in part via the Russian state-security agency producing blackmail materials of a sexual nature designed to ensure Trump's co-operation.

A month ago, we were all talking about "Fake News" and how it had the power to 'unfairly' swing election results by causing serious - yet hard to refute - political damage. It would be wise to recall what was said then, because this latest round of unproven allegations - incredibly flimsy statements which The Guardian referred to as "unverified and potentially unverifiable" - seem to fit pretty exactly into that category of "reporting".

At best, we are dealing with a breathless media (and any number of now-feeling-incredibly-smug/vindicated social media unprofessional commentators) taking note of something from a report that's now in official hands, and broadcasting it at loudspeaker-levels of both volume and distortion.

Because who doesn't love something exciting and sexually weird when it features a politician. It's certainly fairly ideal muck-raking material if you're employed to run what's known as "opposition research" by a rival political campaign. Which, of course, the author of this report was. He was also apparently an ex-MI6 operative . Although while the latter qualification is bandied about by those seeking to convince us of the allegation's authenticity, I'd respectfully suggest that the former vocation - that of paid-political professional hack-job executor - may potentially be rather more relevant when it comes to assessing the claim's credibility.

So why is it that my newsfeed's seemingly gone nuts reposting exaggerated recounts (and some rather hilarious hashtags and memes) attempting to put the boot in to Trump over this?

Well, the story appears to have acquired such vehemence across the sphere of human political communication because there are any number of people out there presently enjoying a sense of 'the shoe' being on the other foot. That is to say, last year they were annoyed at how Trump-amenable "fake news" stories were thought to have made a dent in Clinton's "guaranteed to win" status ... and feel it's now "fair" to descend down to the same level when the target's The Big Orange Opponent as a result.

Although other possibilities for the story's spread have also been advanced.

One narrative has anti-Trumpists still within the Republican Party popularizing the report and handing it on to various official bodies for the express purpose of tarnishing Trump. Perhaps as some sort of last-ditch attempt to prevent his now-impending Inauguration through the shadowy specter of "blackmail-liability". John McCain certainly appears to be a rather big player in this particular rodeo; and it's an almost-perfect mashup of both NeoCon and Conservative talking points (in specia: "Reds under the Bed", and the aforementioned bed being urinated upon as some sort of arguable sexual deviancy).

Another theory has those lovable scamps over on 4chan somehow managing to pass "Donald Trump erotic fanfiction" [eeuugh] off as credible material to the report's authors, who've since carried out their unwitting role in the 'prank' by feeding it into the international news media and intelligence world. In these days of "Pepe the Frog" apparently 'memeing' Trump into the White House, and various Breitbart personalities now becoming part of the new Trumpist political establishment, such a theory would certainly be in-keeping with the spirit of recent events. And certainly, it's no less plausible in some ways than the actual allegation being discussed.

Good grief. What a mess.

But this was far from the only report into the alleged Trump-Putin-FSB/GRU Bromance to make headlines this week. And some of the others are perhaps worth a look. If only, at least, to reconfirm one's suspicions that this whole big beatup on alleged Russian influence over Trump is .. well .. exactly that. A part of a long-running game of pinata between elements of the US Deep State who're pretty lukewarm on an improvement in US-Russian Relations taking turns to attempt to pillory the one man who might just make such a 'thaw' happen.

So in conclusion ... if we are being honest, it is too early for conclusions. More material may yet emerge from CNN's fact-checking to vindicate some of the seemingly wild rumours which have sprung up in the wake of this story. I doubt it, but in these modern times of the Current Year, anything is seemingly possible.

More likely, nothing substantial will come out from the shadows. And we'll be left - much as we were last month - with two bitterly divided rhetorically-armed camps flinging falsehoods at one another in the hopes that eventually something sticks.

But in any case, what has happened over the past few days is rather instructive for how a political party still reeling from seemingly-inexplicable [to themselves, at least] defeat behaves.

As I've said elsewhere:

> Also Democrats: "I just read that Trump's being blackmailed by Moscow with piss-fetish proof - it's all over Buzzfeed!"

Thursday, December 29, 2016

On Cassus Belli-aching with Israel

There are many reasons why states may be said to go to war with one another.

Sometimes, it is to act on behalf of or in defence of a weaker power against a stronger and more aggressive neighbour. Great Britain's famous ultimatum to Nazi Germany of early September 1939, that a state of war would exist between them unless the latter withdrew from its illegal occupation of Poland springs immediately to mind as an example.

On other occasions, a country may go to war to protect or defend perceived international legal norms from violation by an aggressor - Great Britain, again, going to war with Imperial Germany over the violation of Belgian neutrality handily illustrates this principle.

A third head of action - and quite a relevant one for the modern day - is when one state impugns upon the sovereignty of another (an example of which may be the series of causations which lead up to the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the nascent United States of America).

It is to this third class of Cassus Belli that we now turn.

Imagine there was a state out there who habitually stole the passports of those it nominally professed to call "friends"; and then used these documents - important, reified embodiments of both the principle and power of sovereignty and state - to carry out illegal acts of state-sponsored terror in other nations.

Is this not a serious and egregious offence against a country?

What about an instance wherein the security-intelligence agents of a state find themselves caught red-handed attempting to interfere with victim-country's policing and intelligence computersystems, using the cover of the aftermath of a natural disaster in order to gain entry?

Would that not constitute a grave and remarkable violation of sovereignty and the integrity of the victim-country in question?

We probably don't even need to touch upon the moral dodgyness and iniquity of exploiting predatory sales-practices in order to prey upon the elderly to attempt to raise foreign cash reserves for future nefarious purposes.

All of these things are not hypothetical. They are actual, factual historical elements of the sometimes-strained relationship between New Zealand and Israel.

Two out of three of these would form pretty viable justifications for some sort of armed-and-ready International Incident.

Except, tolerant people that we are, the Kiwi people haven't exactly insisted upon anything like that.

Even the fairly straight-up abhorrent (by standards of international law and dignity) Passport incident only put a relatively brief damper upon Israeli-NZ relations, and everything was relatively back to normal within the span of about a year.

But despite the fact that we're pretty easygoing down here, the Israelis aren't anything like so tolerant.

In recent days, we've seen them remove their ambassador from New Zealand, talk of imposing 'sanctions' upon us, and then bar our own ambassador to Israel (this last one not being the first time this has happened - on a previous occurrence, they did so because we *dared* to also engage in diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority in a way they disapproved of).

Now, we find out that they apparently communicated directly with our representatives to tell us that we have issued a tacit "Declaration of War" against them. This will perhaps be a move of supreme hot-aired bluster, of course - with the Netanyahu administration already seemingly seeking to downplay their leader's previous (alleged) slip of the tongue. But it nevertheless betrays a fundamental difference of essence - and a weak-spot, for that matter.

New Zealand has historically been quite (perhaps excessively) forgiving of Israeli transgressions upon both our soil and our sovereignty. The Israelis, by contrast, are so harshly vindictive and vituperative precisely because there is one commodity which they vitally depend upon, and which is becoming in increasingly short supply of late. That of international respect, recognition (in a diplomatic sense), and esteem. Just as with Apartheid South Africa (their allies, whom they assisted to attain Nuclear Weapons, let us remember), there is an awareness that diplomatic isolation will eventually, one day, lead to an enforced change of domestic policy at home. The old adage about bullies craving respect as their currency rings true, here, too.

So they rant and they bluster, and even relatively minor movements on the international scale - such as New Zealand using our all-too-brief position on the UN Security Council to endorse a resolution that was broadly in-line with our previously-existing position on an issue ... and which was so incredibly UNCONTROVERSIAL that even the United States refused to move to condemn it ... well, this apparently constitutes a declaration of war. Surely one of the most serious and somber articulations available in an international relations paradigm, or the illustrious field of statecraft.

Perhaps the Israelis are correct to view this as tantamount to a war-declaration. Maybe it really IS this incredibly significant and serious to them that countries up to and including their formerly omni-abjuring protector in the United States are now starting to rather publicly run out of patience with their occupationist shenanigans. I can certainly, I guess, see why they're evidently so scared. They might even see this as 'the beginning of the end', if we are to get wildly over-hopeful.

But looking at what the Israelis consider to be a 'legitimate' grounds for staging an international incident, I can't help but wonder whether we've previously been far too lenient with the Israelis for their own transgressions over the past decade and a half.

Certainly, as suggested via the slew of examples (a handful of which were invoked in the intro) drawn from the history of international engagement, there'd be no shortage of potential justification for New Zealand to enter into a state of confrontation with the state of Israel.

But we haven't done that.

In no small part because sometimes, that's what being a grown-up and mature state entails.

Rather than, you know, your Prime Minister calling up another state's Foreign Minister for the purpose of throwing a temper tantrum down a phone-line.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"What, No 'I, too, Am A Russian Ambassador'?" Why Reactions To This Political Murder Are Different

Something odd I've noticed: After an act of terrorism (or other highly publicized egregious act of politically motivated violence), we customarily have a hashtag or a display-pic filter showing solidarity with the victim - indeed, often going so semi-ludicrously far as to claim that we "ARE" the Victim. (I'm sure we all remember #JeSuisCharlie etc.)

And yet, in the wake of a Russian diplomat being fairly pulverizingly pistol-mortem'd at a photography exhibition ... memes aside, I see nothing.

Why the difference? What's at odds here? Perhaps it's an artefact of power - a figure of state, rather than a comparatively minor magazine publisher. Maybe that's why there's a more overt lack the latter-day symbology of empathy here.

But I have another theory: it's that the usual sorts who'd be bending their brains to generating the relevant flag-filters or attempting to come up with semi-witty hashtags aren't doing so ... because they do not like Russians. Because they're implicitly on the side of anti-regime fighters in Aleppo (and therefore, as a side-point, implicitly on the 'side' of the off-duty policeman doing the shooting - although perhaps that isn't quite relevant to their thought-considerations).

It's a curious thing - where the lines of "all human life is sanctified' end or are crossed for some people. They had no trouble 'self-identifying' with the publishers of an outright and avowedly Islamophobic magazine, yet it's several bridges and the Bosporus too far to do likewise with a Russian diplomat who's played a key role in brokering this weeks' Aleppo evacuation ceasefire.

Either way. It's time to stop pretending that the people coming up with these token gestures of social-media solidarity and popularizing them are doing so because they have an unbiased interest in "human life" or "anti-terror".

Instead, - it is as it's always been: just another way to show 'solidarity' with power, and the 'right' side of a narrative.

ADDENDUM: Since drafting this piece, I've become appraised of rather vitriolic commentary coming out of the United States about this incident. In specia, articles like this one which attempt to cast the shooter as a 'hero' (and, for that matter, the Russians as "Nazis").

If this is, indeed, the dominant lense through which liberals are now choosing to view both these sad events and the broader Russian role in the Middle East all up ... then it's presumably pretty easy to explain why we're not seeing the usual outpouring of social media sympathy nor solidarity for the aggrieved party.

It has long been said that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" (an aphorism which appears to have become daily, hourly reality when dealing with the well-armed implements of geopolitics in Syria).

My concern given the above-linked article is that a number of 'liberal' opinion-setters still annoyed about the combination of alleged Russian interference in the recent US Elections, and the ongoing 'usurpation' of the US's role as liberal-intergovernmental 'World Police ... may start to get increasingly cavalier in their cautious enthusiasm for just exactly this sort of political violence.

Provided that the targets and the victims are Russians, of course. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

What's Up With Judith Collins' Recent Demotion

A year ago, the force that is Judith Collins was looming upon us like the sort of saw-toothed smile with a fin on top you might see in a crashing wave just before it breaks. She'd come howling back from the political wilderness to find herself once again promoted back to Cabinet. Two weeks ago, she was in (upset) contention for the National Party's top job - and the leadership of the nation.

Today, by contrast, she languishes (relatively speaking) in low-profile portfolios (although not quite out *just* yet); and with a hefty demotion to number 16 on her party's list. One of the highest-profile casualties of Bill English's first stamping of authority upon the National Government's Cabinet.

So what was her crime? It's too easy to say that, in the tradition of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, that it was simply because she was "ambitious". Jonathan Coleman (despite suffering a so-minor-as-to-be-almost-purely-cosmetic demotion) still has his Health and Sport and Recreation portfolios (although some might view the Health area as being a sort of shackled-punishment of responsibility and negative press, itself - it is, after all, an effective exercise in telling people the government's too miserly to bother properly helping them out). And in any case - what politician doesn't, on some level or other, harbour at least *some* pretensions to ambition and greater office. It would almost be a character flaw or personality defect if they didn't.

Instead, Collins' sin is a decidedly more intractable one. She has become a "problem".

And, (regrettably or otherwise) not one with an obvious, easy "solution".

She's far too popular for the National Party to just simply get rid of her - as they did with other figures who've caused issues (consider Katrina Shanks in Ohariu). And yet their previous efforts at marginalizing her through demotion to the back benches only caused further issues.

In specia, because she stubbornly refused to truly become "irrelevant", no matter what they did to her. Placed among what amounts to an "outgroup" inside National's Parliamentary Wing (i.e. the disgruntled-and-passed-over backbenchers who're often bored with rather little to do other than constituency work and putting forward bills to track down people's luggage), she found herself in a leadership position. The fear presumably was that she'd have turned that into some sort of simmering back-bench revolt against the leadership if left to fester there for too much longer. Further, she used the relative freedom a Backbencher has to speak their mind - to criticize (obliquely) her own Government. It may have won her few friends in the Upper Echelons, but her points found easy purchase amidst the lower-middle class voters whose prejudices and proclivities National had seemingly passed over in recent policy.

In short, the National Party found itself dealing with a dangerous outsider who appeared to be (rather successfully) building up a personal following both inside and outside the Party - done in no small measure using tools they themselves had given her. Neither politician will thank me for making this comparison, but one could almost say that this seemed a vaguely similar situation to that of Winston Peters in the early-1990s.

Faced with this challenge, the Nats did what they always do: they attempted to buy her off.

Shortly after her latest bout of media salience (triggered by criticizing her own Government's perceived enthusiasm for 'unelected Maori everything' in both local governance and resource management), she received news that she'd been once again elevated to Cabinet - and had even been given back pretty plum portfolios where she'd previously (somewhat) excelled, in the form of Policing and Corrections.

Collins thrives in a 'law and order' environment for a number of reasons - it plays into her 'strong' image, and the issues she can raise in these portfolios chime in most strongly with the fears and priorities of those aforementioned middle-class voters (once you've got a piece of prosperity, one of your first thoughts is often what to do about people nicking it off you). Given the fact that her promotion was obviously supposed to be anything but a negative thing, I can only surmise that the high-ups doing the allocating figured that if they gave her pretty much what she wanted, then she'd quieten down and be a team player.

This doesn't appear to have happened; and in addition to publicly attempting to disrupt with the specter of actual choice and democracy what was supposed to be an orderly and uncontroversial Leadership Transition inside National earlier this month, she also went out on a limb to once again criticize her own Government in the process. If there's one thing you're DEFINITELY not supposed to do while in Cabinet (as she still was during the leadership handover), then it's probably that. Particularly when the specific subjectmatter of the criticisms (the perceived wastefulness of 2017's targeted tax-cuts - and, more especially, the fact that the police being underresourced was actually National's fault due to financing constraints; both elements of the Finance portfolio) was ultimately aimed fairly directly at the guy "supposed" to be taking over as Prime Minister at the end of things.

It probably didn't help any that in the eyes of a good swathe of the electorate, she appeared to be largely "right" on all counts. I was quite interested to see the number of people around me who'd said things like "I don't like Judith Collins - but I agree with what she's saying she'd do differently if heading National" ... and that's among mostly non-National voters. No wonder her superiors are scared.

This brings us almost up to the present day.

It seems clear, now, that National's two thus-far deployed measures of attempted "Collins-control" (or, if you like, 'crushing') haven't worked. Putting her into exile only put her into a greater position to cause 'trouble'. Bringing her back and attempting to ply her with the baubles (and tasers, and prison-block fight clubs) of office didn't work, either - it simply added kerosene to the fire under the guise of manufacturing a more 'controlled blaze'.

So a third course has had to be struck.

They know they can't seriously demote her again - and they haven't. Instead, they've kept her in Cabinet (with all the prestige - but also weighty chains of responsibility and Collective Cabinet convention which that implies); while also lumbering her with heavy-workload, minimum-visibility portfolios. Clearly, the idea is that the demands of managing the tax system and our energy sector will swamp her in details rather than media-attention headlines; with the high level of community engagement and required public appearances associated with Ethnic Affairs keeping her further busy somewhere far away from the limelight.

Meanwhile, the choice of now-Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett is obviously intended to simultaneously demonstrate that Collins' raised-concerns in the portfolio are being taken seriously (by someone other than her, of course); and help to build up Bennett's own 'tough-on-things-disliked-by-the-aspirational-middle-class' credentials. In other words, the Nats want an 'anti-Collins' going forward - and as 'crushing' as the despair is for many on benefits post-Bennett, 'strong on law and order' sounds far better in concert with 'getting people off benefits' than does the latter purely by itself.

But this being National, there are always several more angles to the play than are immediately apparent.

The Government has recently announced a major push to combat foreign multinational corporate tax avoidance. Collins can certainly do well out of this provided it's executed properly (and her 'tough' persona will both play a role and benefit accordingly); or, if it all fails and falls over in a hum, then there's certainly no harm in her taking the hit. Picking up Simon Bridges' former Energy portfolio with its associated oil prospecting etc. issues will also give her ample opportunity to both annoy protesters, and potentially find herself covered in muck if something goes wrong there.

She thus has something of an opportunity for a long-term game of more fulsome redemption - as well as any number of (semi-deliberate) spiked pit-traps lining her way to get there. It will be interesting indeed to see in what shape she both sees out this Parliamentary Term, and positions herself toward the beginning of the next one. Particularly as I'm given to understand National folks in a position to be able to do so have straight-up told her that her continued open leadership ambitions will no longer be tolerated, and that she may be playing something of a dangerous game in continuing to bank upon her apparent 'too big to fail' status as protection against something similar to what happened to Sam Lotu-Iiga (or, for that matter, Winston) transpiring to her.

The message delivered by her recent demotion must have been a clear one: that no matter if one is popular enough to be powerful, powerful enough to be threatening, and too threatening to just simply be obviated, executed or ignored ... this still does not protect one from one's cherished (and, arguably, well-fitting) porfolios from being stripped away as an attempted exercise in political castration.

The other message from all of this: as in leadership contests, life and casinos ... The House always wins.

Friday, December 9, 2016

2002/2016 Tunnel Vision. What People Are Missing When They Dismiss Bill English Due To His 20.9%

The Left are a pretty optimistic bunch. And with good cause - after eight successive years of grueling hard-neoliberal governance, and having to watch National's number of seats only grow regardless, you pretty much have to be. It's either that, or give up in despair.

But while some might call this a virtue ... folks suffering from a delirium of hope are not best known for their astute and perspicacious political analysis. In situations like the one we find ourselves in at the moment where there appear to be a relative paucity of bright spots, we instead take it upon ourselves to manufacture things to make it seem like we're in with a chance.

Probably the best example of that at the moment, is the sort of breathless furor of amusement from any number of people about how the National Party have hand-picked to lead them into the next election ... a man whose previous attempt at a Prime Ministerial performance netted approximately 20.9% of the vote.

It's not hard to see why this comparatively minor piece of political arcana is suddenly on everybody's lips. Labourites can take some considerable reassurance that as bad as their poll-numbers are looking ... at least they're not down to *That* level. (Yet...) Meanwhile, other persons in favour of changing the government can relish the prospect that maybe, finally, we're in with a chance. Surely somebody who bombed out THAT badly can't continue to replicate the absolute implacable juggernaut electoral success of the Key years ... right?

But this ongoing obsession with but a single data-point misses two rather important considerations. First, the explanation for why National did so poorly in 2002 doesn't simply hinge around "Bill English is a bad leader" (in fact, I'd argue it's quite a bit more complex than that - and perhaps largely not poor old Bill's fault); and second, at almost a decade and a half on, we're in a seriously, SERIOUSLY different political environment now - rendering all past comparisons additionally flimsical.

To turn to the first point ... there are several reasons why National performed so poorly in 2002. Most of them are (one way or the other) holdovers from the Nineties. People were still rather annoyed about both National's own actions throughout the period (remembering that broadspanning anger with what they got up to in their first term of government that decade was significant enough to drive the populace at large to completely upend the nation's electoral system); as well as continuing to spit tacks about the collapse of the National-NZ First government and the resultant ensuing shenanigans. (So in a way, I guess you could say it was partially Winston's fault - in much the same way that just about everything in modern New Zealand Politics somehow is)

Now, it's always going to be tough for a Party which has just been turfed out after nine long years in office to do incredibly well at its first Election as an Opposition. They've been used to leaning rather heavily upon the resources of Government (in the form of fat Parliamentary and Ministerial Services staffing, easy media time with which to set and control the narrative, and all the rest of it); they're much more prepared to patsy-question their own achievements than they are to attack the steadily unfolding works and ethos of their newfound Treasury-bench replacements; and, as mentioned in the preceeding paragraph ... people, put quite simply, haven't had enough time to forget why they voted them out the last time in the first place.

But successful parties (like, for instance, New Zealand First between our ouster in 2008, and our meteoric re-entry to Parliament in 2011) take a step back, take stock, and start Doing Things Different in order to both attempt to overcome these 'de-institutionalized' disadvantages - and to convince the public that they're either 'Under New Management' (while perhaps not necessarily having to change over *too* many people), or have 'Seen The Light' and mended the previous Error Of Their Ways that was causing all the strife and discontentment out there in the electorate in the fist place.

National's trouble was that it did neither.

Instead, Jenny Shipley persisted on as Leader of the National Party (and therefore of the Opposition) for almost two years. To call her one of the most reviled PMs in recent NZ political history would, to my mind, be something of an understatement. And she probably would have made an effort to retain the leadership right up until the 2002 election, had Bill English not stepped in and deposed her in October of 2001. The trouble was - particularly with the early election which Helen Clark called for nine months later - there wasn't really sufficient time for National to seriously rebrand in a way that meaningfully helped voters to get over their anger, distrust, and gentle enthusiasm for hte new guys in Government.

Now had he been in place a term or two later, I don't think there's too much serious doubt that he would have started to do much better than his 2002 showing. But fate and fortune had other notions in mind, and so we saw the fairly meteoric (in the sense that it eventually burned up in the political atmosphere) rise of Don Brash to replace him in late 2003.

But if I've tried to sketch out that the 2002 defeat wasn't all English's fault - I should also probably point out that it wasn't all National's fault, either. Even leaving aside the fact that a first term government is usually quite popular out there with the Polis ... there were other parties out there who made great and capacious gains against the backdrop of National's ongoing electoral misery.

Foremost among these, of course, was New Zealand First - who, campaigning on a strong platform of law and order, immigration reform, and miscellaneous treaty bits and pieces (Gosh ... that sounds familiar! Perhaps it's not National whom people should be making 2002 allusions about this cycle...), managed a fairly impressive recovery from our 1999 nadir by adding eight seats and capturing 10.38% of the vote.

But there were, of course, others. In those days, each of ACT and United Future were acutally serious parties (it seems crazy now, doesn't it). ACT was still sitting strong on the gains it had previously made at National's fairly direct expense (nine seats, and 7.14% of the vote - somewhere between ten and a hundred times their present modern-day level of support); while United Future ballooned like Peter Dunne's bouffant - adding 7 seats and 5.04% of the vote, for a combined total of eight and 6.69%. [We can also presumably make the case that the occasionally small C's Christian Conservatism of the United Future lot might have fairly directly trod upon the toes of Bill English's personal brand]

Oh, and alongside this Labour was putting out a rather different set of signals as applies 'minor parties' than it is right now. Referring to the Greens as "anarcho-feminists and goths" is exactly the kind of derisive (if occasionally semi-grain-of-truth-bearing) electoral rhetoric which reassures the sort of voters who've decided to continue to back National (or NZ First) because they can't stand the Greens - but who were Labour voters once, even if the contemporary prospects for wooing them home appear somewhat irrevocably dim.

So straightaway, you can start to get a bit of a picture as to why National looked to poll so dismally in late July 2002. They hadn't meaningfully distinguished themselves from one of the worst governments in modern NZ history, people were still annoyed; they were up against a fairly competent and broadly popular first-term government; and their vote was hewed up with somewhere between 15-20% of what National now holds being divvied up amongst more 'minor' parties.

NONE of these factors really apply to the modern National party here, now, in 2016.

Instead, it's almost - curiously - exactly the inverse. National remains a strong and broadly popular (I can't quite bring myself to say 'competent') Government even this late in their third term. There are some rumblings of discontent and some minor-faux-pas-that-should-have-surely-been-major-ones here and there ... but vociferous suggestions that "third-term-itis" have set in are for the most part wildly overblown. John Key remains the most popular PM in recent memory (a stark contrast to Jenny Shipley) - and even though National looks set to take *a* hit as the result of the transition, I doubt it will be that major (not least because Key's personal popularity has for some time now been polling lower than National's party support - so his leaving may not affect it). So they're really in a position of strength. Even if something semi-unthinkable (at this stage, anyway) happened and they suddenly haemorrhaged something like ten percent of the vote ... they'd still be on or about 40% - and only one half-decent coalition partner away from forming the next Government. (Again)

Meanwhile, over on the Opposition benches ... Labour's facing almost exactly the same problem which National once did all those years ago back in 2002. Their vote's gone to the four winds, and they - as yet - appear to have precious little idea how to properly beg it to return. New Zealand First continues to go from strength to strength as the direct result & consequence of Labour's weakness (it is not accidental that Winston now rails very loudly against 'neoliberalism' - he's making a conscious play to be the core pillar of its opposition in territory where the left wing of Labour once sat) - with many, I have no doubt, of the tens of thousands of voters and 11 list seats we picked up on Election Night 2014 having come to us fairly directly from the former Red. And with NZ First continuing to rise, I don't see Labour's Sheolish turmoil coming to an end any time soon.

The Greens are in a similar position (albeit not rising as fast - or, according to some estimations, really at all - their share of the vote actually dropped in 2014, even if their seats didn't). They've increased in stature by a decent nine seats since Labour was last in Government in 2008 - and it seems fair to state that each of the three and five seats they picked up in 2008 and 2011 were largely at Labour's expense as the latter's vote continued to disintegrate before entering full-on free-fall.

Alongside this, there is also talk that some much-muttered about MANA-Maori Party alliance may yet 'deliver' more than a single one of the Maori Seats from Labour  to other parties - further hewing into one of the only areas on our electoral landscape where it can still be feasibly said that Labour is relatively strong.

And turning to Labour itself - while Andrew Little appears to be a throughly decent figure, the continual polldrums (like doldrums, but with an excess of wind-flow due to hot-air of everybody talking about them) show no sign of abating in the near future - rendering Labour a substantial shoe-in to remain in the low-twenties from now until election day next year.

Indeed, you could almost say that Andrew Little represents something of a latter-day 2002-era Bill English...

So with all that in mind ... I get it, I really do, as to why people are laughing up a storm on social media as to Bill English's previous record as Leader of the National Party. It's certainly nice to pretend, for an all too brief moment, that National's somehow stuffed up its leadership selection - and that we'll all soon benefit fairly directly as a result with a Blue-vote collapse. But everybody's got a past - and that doesn't necessarily (especially when it's not actually their fault nor a substantive reflection upon them) determine their present nor future.

National is not phenomenally weak - and it will not become so just and purely because they've elected to go with a 'safe pair of hands' for next year's Election. (Indeed, given much of Middle New Zealand appears to vote  largely on the basis of who makes them feel the most that the economy's being well-managed regardless of the actual truth ... one COULD say that National's in fact selected the ideal man for the job of keeping them in the Blue Tent).

So laugh at The Civilian piece on this theme all you want ... but remember: if we actually want to defeat National, it'll take an awful lot more than historical-factoid guffawing in order for us to get there.