Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Auckland Electoral Post-Mortem Part 1: 'Solids' And 'Biddables'

So now that the dust's started to settle and the excitement's mostly over (barring one or two personages who'll be sitting on tenterhooks awaiting the results of special voting), the attention of the Commentariat has sensibly turned to picking over the weekend's local body electoral result.

I say "sensibly", but there's been a marked tendency towards some decidedly 'unsensible' conclusions. This is presumably an artifact of the FPP mindset which still dominates some aspects of electoral coverage. We want clear, defined and decisive 'winners' and 'losers'. It's much more narratively interesting to be able to present a 'left-bloc' crusading to victory over and against one or more right-wing factions.

But - particularly around the Council table - this isn't exactly how things actually work.

There, as with the very earliest days of Parliament at the national level, you're effectively dealing with far more 'independent' creatures than the fairly tightly-whipped confederations of opinion we find in our modern political parties. Each Councilor is an individual - often, functionally and in practice an Independent (whether they ran as one or not) - and subject to a potentially bewildering array of considerations when it comes time for them to decide how they're going to vote on a particular issue.

Some of these are going to be patently obvious. Those wishing to be re-elected and on thin majorities will wish to please certain (perhaps more vocal) portions of their local constituencies. Others might have particular vaunted paths of idealism which they wish to head down, and which will govern their decision-making behavior. Kow-towing to the wishes of wealthy financiers may be a third consideration. And coming distantly fourth when we talk of motivations - but probably somewhere about first or second in actual practice - are the wishes of Council technocrats lurking murkily in the shadows.

But there's one factor of absolutely vital importance which often falls completely through the cracks in public consideration - perhaps because it's so hard to pin down by journalists.

And that, dear friends, is the subtle art of influence-peddling and vote-bidding.

On every Council there emerges one or more figures who 'wield the chains', if you like that link to the collars of a dozen or more of their compatriots. Somebody who's capable of inducing 'by hook or by crook' the people around them to be herded in the right direction for an agenda to take place.

Ideally, this is the Mayor's job - to form a 'working majority' from his or her fellows, and get enough votes lining up the right way to ensure certain flagship items pass so that her or his vision can be immanentized.

More recently, and for a number of reasons, that job seems to have fallen to (now previous, possibly shortly present) Auckland Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse. But as that appears largely to have been the result of Brown's political failings, his replacement with incoming Mayor Phil Goff may result in that responsibility transitioning.

Goff is an indisputably experienced coalition-builder (as anyone inheriting the mantle of Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party must surely be); but let's take a look at what he's working with.

Hitherto, some commentators have attempted to divide up the Auckland Council into 'left' and 'right', with maybe a few 'centrist' folks thrown in for good measure. Or, with deference to the fact that former Rodney Councilor Penny Webster came to the Brown camp from out of deepest, darkest ACT ... Pro-Mayor and Anti-Mayor. Or, when it comes to The Spinoff ... "People We Like", and "Sea-Goblins".

But the truth is actually rather more complex.

For our purposes, we can probably divide the Council across two axes - 'left' and 'right' (relatively speaking), and 'biddable' versus 'solid'. The first duality's self-explanatory; the second refers to how amenable a given Councilor is to wavering in their quasi-ideological convictions in service of the Mayor's presumptive vaguely center-left agenda.

The names comprising the 'Solid Left' ought come as no surprise. Mike Lee & Cathy Casey have histories of service and well-renowned records. Even The Spinoff couldn't argue with the principle and application of the latter. To this number we can add the two 'Putting People First' Councilors from Albany, Wayne Walker & John Watson; and from the Manukau ward, Efeso Collins. I'm also told that Richard Hills, the potential-Councilor (dependent upon pending special votes in North Shore), would be a likely candidate for inclusion in this group - although the risk with younger folk is you never quite know how they're going to go in the absence of a longer record of service to extrapolate from.

The people on the 'Biddable Left', in many ways aren't that different from the constituent members of the 'Solid Left'. And there's much that is positive to say about a number of them and their achievements. They're classed as 'Biddable' due to potential differing priorities which mark them as an arguably softer form of left. They include folk people look up to such as Alf Filipaina and Penny Hulse (who themselves have a strong working relationship); and further along the spectrum towards the center, individuals like Chris Darby and Ross Clow (the latter of which definitely comes from the 'right-wing' of Labour).

Now out on the 'Biddable Right', we have individuals like Bill Cashmore (whom I'm told can occasionally seem somewhat indistinguishable from Ross Clow), Daniel Newman, John Walker, and Christine Fletcher - with potential question-marks over Greg Sayers and Linda Cooper. The reasoning for their 'right-wing' labeling ought to be plainly & readily apparent. The 'biddable' heading comes from the fact that these are often not entirely unreasonable people, who can in fact be swayed towards lending their votes and support to the occasional Good Idea.

Further out again on the 'Solid Right', in approximate order of sanity and obstructionism, we have Denise Krum (possibly the most successful person to come out of United Future in recent years - and being singlehandedly responsible for 100% of Auckland Future's Council-seat gains this year ... albeit only by patching over from her former affiliation of C&R), Sharon Stewart, and Dick Quax. These last two presumably require no introduction - and represent one of the few times that The Spinoff's unique brand of creatively illustrative vitriol-branding is entirely and unambiguously accurate in its assessment.

So if you were to look out across the Council Table from the Mayor's pole position, what you'd see is probably an approximate Ten-Ten split with yourself as the casting vote. Not an entirely bad place to be in. Particularly when we add in the potential buffer of a few 'biddable right' Councilors who can occasionally be induced to support certain measures.

In terms of how the 'left' is doing long-term and overall, it's probably more useful to consider any changes in numbers on the Council in their proper historical context, rather than the 'vacuum' of a single election result.

Specifically, the way that the 2013 reversals for the left in the form of Denise Krum replacing Richard Northey and Linda Cooper replacing Sandra Coney (the first due to a narrow electoral loss, the second due to retirement) have now, themselves, been reversed due to the replacement of George Wood on the North Shore, and the election of Efeso Collins down South.

Although considering the finely tuned matters of numbers and balance, I can't help but wonder what would have eventuated if The Spinoff's call for Bill Ralston to triumph over Mike Lee had actually eventuated.

It occurs that 11-9 in favour of the 'right' is a lot less favourable, even though it's a single vote, as compared to an even 10-10 plus Mayor.

Hopefully that clears things up a little.

[I'd like to acknowledge the political sources I talked to as part of the preparation for this piece]

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Battleground Wairarapa: Why Ron Mark Is Poised To Take The Seat Off National

One of the benefits of being a political insider is that people tell you things. Often, things which the original source of the information would probably dearly have liked to keep secret. These little revelations help to make sense of wider and overt trends which many people notice, but which don't necessarily make full sense in the absence of the 'hidden' information which puts them in context.

Part-way through last month, I became aware of a number of interesting things happening down in the Wairarapa electorate. This is a National seat (and these days arguably something of a 'safe' one), but with a local MP widely regarded as an aloof and out-of-touch carpet-bagger who spends most of his time in Wellington. So we'd presumably be unsurprised to see the Nats putting a bit of work in to campaign there next year.

But deploying massed ground forces THIS far out from the Election?

That's a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.

And yet, that's exactly what's happening.

People down there have noted with bemusement and interest that the Young Nats have been out street-campaigning for their local MP for several weeks now. Clearly they're going to keep building up from there for the next year or so.

So this tells us that the Nats are scared.

But of what?

Well, that's where the 'surreptitious information' bit comes in.

National commissioned a phone-poll of about ten thousand houses in the Wairarapa electorate. That's the vast majority of them.

The results were, from their perspective at least, probably not the most encouraging. Somewhere about 73% of voters held an unfavourable opinion of Alastair Scott and were considering not voting for him. That's a pretty strongly negative result.

Meanwhile, Ron Mark's been steadily gaining ground all the while through solid hard graft and stellar constituency engagement. The meetings NZF have been holding in the Wairarapa electorate regularly pack out halls with hundreds. When I did a bit of doorknocking for Ron earlier this year, we found a fairly overwhelmingly positive response from people there for him.

To be fair, the 2014 voting breakdown does leave some ground for Ron to make up. 7593 votes, in fact.

But bear in mind that in 2014 Ron's campaign was run 'seat-of-the-pants' style - announcing a few weeks before polling day, and contesting the race with a small (but highly proficient) campaign team.

2017 looks set to be thoroughly different, as not only does Ron now have the advantages of incumbency (after a sort, being the local List MP of note; as well as a nationally regarded leading Opposition MP), but his war-chest and crew of rampantly enthusiastic volunteers continues to swell.

Labour may also be looking for a new candidate to contest the next Election - but even if they stick with Kieran McAnulty, they face an uphill struggle to reverse the three consecutive electoral cycles' worth of declining candidate vote which they've tended to have in that seat.

And besides, in a rural seat one simply has to ask the obvious question: which Opposition party is more likely to be able to win and capture the hearts and minds of defecting soft-National voters. A declining, fading former party of government which appears set to be eventually relegated to 'minor party' status ... or the vigorously rising crew who've launched an effective (and evidently well-regarded) Crusade for Regional New Zealand.

So all things considered, National is definitely right to be scared. They face the unenviable situation of already having lost a single 'safe' seat to the NZF onslaught - and, perhaps more remarkably, being potentially set to lose another one.

Either way, New Zealand First is in a demonstrably strong position - and I, for one, can't wait to see the mounting cavalcade of consternating terror from National towards us over the next twelve months.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Why National Is Really Looking To Sanctify Illegal Imprisonment And Deny Compensation

One of the fundamental instincts of the political conservative is to Punish. To 'Protect'. To levy the superior powers of the state as a mechanism with which to push 'down and out' against perceived 'undesirables' who may be living in our society's midst.

In ages past, the demographic targets for this form of umbrage have been many and multifarious. These days, it's no longer polite nor acceptable to go after some of them (although beneficiaries and the working poor appear to remain popular objects of scorn in some circles).

But one of the groups which apparently remains absolutely A-OK for right-wing opinion leaders to come down on like a tonne of bricks in pursuit of positive returns at the polls ... is criminals.

I guess it's not hard to see why. Criminals - and those convicted of crimes serious enough to warrant a term of imprisonment in particular - are generally regarded as harming others. As having forfeited some measure of their intrinsic human worth and dignity by transgressing upon the civic norms to which each and all of the rest of us nominally subscribe. They are, quite literally in the popular imagination, the angry threatening figure out there in the dark of the night. The drunk whose aggressive attentions we flailingly attempt to recoil from when we see them coming towards us. An inexorable drain upon the public purse through both the willful damage they cause, and the expensive efforts which We, The People must undertake in order to find, apprehend, vigorously prosecute and punish them.

At least, in the frenetic Conservative's irritation-fuelled imagination. In real life, some criminals are exactly as monstrous as that outlined above ... and others, well, aren't. Cannabis-smokers and small-time drug-dealers are probably a pretty good example of these only semi-reprehensible reprobates. Their behavior isn't intrinsically objectionable, and I'm even aware of a recent case in New Zealand law in which a Judge referred to the latter as being a quite literally "victimless crime".

But regardless of how you feel about crime, criminals or politicians ... it is inarguable that there is strong necessity for there to be both strictures and restraints upon the coercive powers of the state. Where there is no legal basis to lock somebody up, they should not be allowed to be locked up. Where the state has considerably erred in its usage of powers to condemn, indemnify and incarcerate, there ought to be tangible action to put things 'back into balance' - often in the form of restitution. And where the state has been caught out red-handed in wrongfully imprisoning somebody or otherwise doing injurious harm to their person or reputation (for such, a term of incarceration almost assuredly is) ... then it really should think VERY long and hard before considering the utter affront to the Rule of Law implicit in casting retroactive legislation to post-facto legalize its previously wrongful conduct.

Given that all of this is the 'right thing to do', it should probably come as absolutely no surprise to just about anyone that Judith Collins - the Corrections Minister who memorably once suggested prison-rape as an active deterrence to future offending - appears to want to do just about all the opposite.

As many are now aware, a recent New Zealand Supreme Court decision has clarified that we've been illegally keeping New Zealanders - potentially somewhere up above five hundred of us - behind bars illegally. The Government, caught somewhat flat-footed by the court's judgement, appears to be moving to block compensation for those wrongfully imprisoned - and, potentially more worryingly, change the law to retroactively keep people in prison.

This is wrong. This is so obviously wrong that we could dress it up in a rosette and run it as an ACT Party candidate.

But what's behind it? It's exceedingly tempting to just and simply characterize the Nats - and the insouciant Collins in particular - as a nasty pack of work, out to derive some considerable pleasure from ruining and coralling the lives of others. Yet there's almost certainly more going on here.

We've seen this sort of behavior before - frequently enough, in fact, to start drawing out a bit of a pattern.

Remember when David Bain was released? Then, compensation was mooted. A report was ordered into the subject in order to ascertain whether this was appropriate. In the view of the expert member of the Canadian judiciary whom the government had headhunted in order to produce the judgement, it was. While Bain hadn't proven his innocence - he HAD produced sufficient 'reasonable doubt' over his conviction to effectively remove his guilt. The state, therefore, had had no basis for keeping him locked up - and owed him some measure of compensation for putting his life into cryo-sleep in the interim behind bars.

Judith Collins disagreed. And after excoriating the Judge responsible for this fair and accurate determination (allegedly after wasting yet more taxpayers' money to fly him over here from Egypt in order to give him a verbal dressing down personally), a new report was ordered by another luminal figure of the legal fraternity with the specific objective of producing a settlement - and a dollar figure - vastly more amenable to the Crown's (by which I mean the Government's) political interests.

And that's why David Bain is, today, walking home with zero compensation for his time spent behind bars (albeit with several hundred thousand dollars recompense for his legal fees).

A regrettably similar pattern played out with Teina Pora's bid for compensation. In this instance, there was no doubt. Pora had been found innocent, and was entitled to compensation. But there WAS some measure of quibbling to be had as to the precise level of coin which he got. Due to accident or malignancy, the relevant legal provisions did not allow for an incorporation of inflation into the dollar amount Mr Pora was entitled to. He therefore wound up somewhere in the area of $1.5 million dollars short. A not inconsiderable amount of money.

Various politicians, commentators and activisty-types pressed for the Government to use its discretion, and go beyond the strict letter of the law in order to make full restitution to a man who'd been so considerably wronged by the system.

Those pleas fell on deaf ears; and I can't help but find myself wondering whether, if it were a matter for completely open Governmental discretion, whether Pora would have found himself given any compensation whatsoever at all.

All things considered, the Government's attitudes towards both criminals - and, more worryingly, those who were illegally locked up alongside them - appears to be categorically and comprehensively mean-spirited.

This should come as no surprise. In an age wherein National are fairly desperate to direct attention away from their chronic under-funding of the police, and the rising tide of crime which accompanies seriously flawed economic mismanagement ... how better to placate the baying mob of its corner of the electorate, than by being seen to kick downwards against nominal 'criminals'.

There is always a 'fiscal argument' raised in cases such as these against compensation being paid. This is wrong-headed. Justice for the citizen ought trump petty economic considerations where possible - and, in any case, the disincentive for the state of having to pay out when it wrongfully imprisons somebody is a useful tool. Besides, considering this is the same group of politicians who felt quite comfortable wasting twenty six million dollars on a flag-change referendum nobody wanted, it's not like they're exactly concerned with being model bastions of economic frugality elsewhere, anyway.

Thus, I maintain that these economic 'justifications' against compensation are merely a front. The Government is concerned with how it would look to some of its hard-on-law-and-order supporters if it were seen to make rightful restitution to victims of the justice system's ongoing legislative incompetence.

I'm also not entirely sure that the public safety justifications raised by Collins in response to this issue are any more factually viable. Preventative detention is, indeed, a sentence we mete out to some of the worst offenders - serial and compulsive sex offenders and the like. It thus does have some precedent. But that is not what we are talking about here. Instead, Collins appears to be suggesting that locking up offenders - illegally - for longer will lead to a reduction in crime (provided, one supposes, that the crime is not committed behind bars - a possibility she also acknowledges).

It's a pretty worrying stance for a politician to take - justifying illegitimate incarcerations in the nebulous pursuit of public safety. And a more than somewhat questionable one in practice. The longer one spends in prison, the greater the risk of an inmate being scarred and socialized - brutalized - towards an enduring life of crime.

But, of course, National doesn't care about that.

Instead, they're only concerned with the "optics" of the situation - and there, for an uncomfortably large share of their voters, "cheapness" and "meanness" as applies criminal justice policy and the rights of those incarcerated, must apparently win out every time.

It is a scary thing indeed to be rendered subject to the coercive power of the state. It is even scarier to be held so wrongfully. And, on top of this, to see one's rights and restitution treated as political footballs to be kicked out of play rather than meaningful concerns to be properly examined and taken seriously.

So frankly, to put it bluntly, it's absolutely terrifying that National are gearing up to legitimate all of those things through retroactively protecting wrongful imprisonment, and denying those affected compensation.

We deserve better.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Spiraling Inequality Proves National Not To The Left Of Labour - But Someone Arguably Is...

As some may be aware, New Zealand First's official stance as applies David Seymour is to disregard the vast majority of what he says, on grounds that he is often axiomatically wrong. I'd previously considered this a bit overly partisan - even for me - noting Seymour's strong contributions on both euthanasia and state compensation for those wrongfully imprisoned ... but reading this weekend's David vs Jacinda column, the reasoning for such a de-rigeur default position of disagreement with him suddenly snapped into incredibly harsh relief.

In Sunday's piece, Seymour makes the utterly bizarre contention that National is, at present and in its modern form, to the left of the Labour Party. Now to be fair, this has historically been true on some occasions - in 1990, for instance, National campaigned on *rolling back Rogernomics* (before betraying the nation with Ruthanasia); and when it comes to the superannuation debate, we can sensibly argue that Labour's previous advocacy for raising the retirement age placed it somewhat to the right of National's (and New Zealand First's) insistence upon maintaining it at 65.

But none of this exculpates Seymour's assertion from being anything other than manifestly counterfactual.

The key piece of evidence which Seymour advances in attempted substantiation of his claim is that we've witnessed a shift in our nation's tax base, which National are boasting about. Specifically, we now have a situation wherein the top ten percent of income earners in New Zealand pay more than thirty seven percent of this country's income tax. And on the face of it, I guess you could naively presume that shifting the tax burden up the income-ladder so that the more well off pay more tax means that there's some sort of deep and abiding commitment to progressive taxation up there in the Beehive these days.

Except there isn't.

If anyone cares to remember, in 2010 the National Party made some fundamental alterations to our tax system - but they didn't exactly make it more progressive. In fact, quite the opposite. They DECREASED tax rates for the wealthy, while INCREASING the regressive GST which we all pay (and which consumes proportionately more of lower income earners' wages, because we don't and can't save as much). It also put a hole in the government's books which has so far consumed somewhere over five billion dollars (there's an approximate cost of $1.1 billion dollars a year in foregone revenue for the new tax levels) - but we'll leave that aside for the moment.

So if National decreased the proportion of their income which the wealthy pay in taxes ... but the proportion of income tax paid by the wealthy has noticeably increased over the last seven years, then there's presumably one very obvious explanation for why this has occurred.

It's simple - rising (indeed, skyrocketing) economic inequality.

How else could rich people who're taxed less wind up paying more of our taxes, unless either i) they were making a lot MORE to be taxed on in the first place; and/or ii) the other, 'bottom' 90% of us were making so much less as to cause a noticeable drop in the share of tax that we're paying.

And indeed, National's own figures appear to somewhat bear this out. There's been something like a twenty percent drop in the share of the nation's income tax paid by the bottom 30% of our workers - which further substantiates the idea that those at the bottom of our economic pile are earning even less than before.

Indeed, given the bottom 42% of New Zealand households apparently require more in benefits, tax credits and other economic support measures than they pay out in taxes to be able to survive from day-to-day and week-to-week, it seems pretty resoundingly clear that the rewards for any slow pickup in economic growth are being DECIDEDLY unfairly distributed.

All of this fundamentally undercuts Seymour's suggestion that National is noticeably or markedly to the left of Labour. For all its faults, it would appear fairly blatantly obvious that the last Labour Government didn't preside over a situation of income inequality this bad.

Although one further item caught my eye.

Seymour cites John Key's 2008 criticism of Labour's last term in government being "communism by stealth".

But when we think back to the sort of policies which might have earned Labour that particular sobriquet, I'm not entirely sure how many of them were actually Labour's at all.

Consider: the 2005-2008 Parliamentary Term saw Labour and New Zealand First working together - during which time, we enacted such key and essential NZF initiatives as renationalizing several hundred million dollars worth of formerly private enterprise (in order to create Kiwirail); raised the minimum wage by an unprecedented amount (something like a dollar a year - while also effectively abolishing youth rates); opposed pernicious foreign trade deals; and delivered substantial personnel increases to both a key state service (the NZ Police) and a Ministry bureaucracy( MFaT).

So really, when you get right down to it, what the Neoliberal Right of New Zealand politics were seeking to criticize about the last term of Labour when they derisively referred to "Communism by Stealth" ... was actually New Zealand First core policy (meaning if there's anybody whom Seymour should be criticizing for having a track-record to the demonstrable left of Labour ... it's probably not National, but instead New Zealand First).

This theme was continued during the last Parliamentary term when a certain Government Minister (none other than Peter Dunne, if memory serves) referred to Winston as "The Hugo Chavez of the South Pacific" for the economic agenda which we wished to push forward from 2011-2014.

At the time, I took it as a bit of an unintentional compliment.

In any case, and all things considered ... Seymour probably isn't the person deserving of scalding scorn and opprobium here. He's being a bit contrarian in pursuit of a headline and rather intellectually disingenuous in pursuit of getting his point across. 'So what', I'm tempted to say. That's basically what he does - and it's mostly harmless in this instance, because the only people who'd possibly take him seriously in his assertions are those who'd presumably never dream of voting for Labour anyway (except in 1987 - when the Reds came perilously close to winning Remuera).

Instead, if you're feeling any considerable ire over this (and really, you should be) ... then it probably and presumably ought to be targeted squarely at Steven Joyce and the rest of the National Government.

Not only have they created and presided over a situation of seriously escalating economic inequality in this nation ... they have the utter temerity and arrogance to brag and boast about it as if it's a key hallmark of ongoing economic progress. Madness!

There's nothing wrong with operating to the economic left of Labour. But it seems fairly patently obvious that that's not what National are doing. If there's any dyed-in-the-wool Cold Warriors out there in the audience, they may perhaps choose to disagree - but running a fairly broadly social-democrat economic policy is not supposed to substantially increase inequality by benefiting economic elites at the expense of just about everyone else.

That would be the economic creed of the Right Wing that Seymour's thinking of.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

New Zealand First Is NOT Neoliberal - A Response To Frank Macskasy

I ordinarily have a lot of time for Frank Macskasy. His pieces are usually trenchantly researched and thorough. On top of that, he was the first journalist to ever give me a proper interview.

But even the best of us have off days. Combinations of preferenced ideological blind-spots and wood-for-trees-ism which mercilessly get in the way of and interfere with the accuracy of our analysis.

And as applies Frank's piece from earlier this week setting out the rather perilous accusation that New Zealand First is, in fact, ardently neoliberal ... that certainly appears to be what's happened here.

Now don't get me wrong. I am not saying that the material Frank quoted was either inaccurate or wildly out of context. It wasn't. Winston, while in government with the National Party from 1996-1998, wound up backing and supporting principles and policies which might fairly be regarded as almost the complete opposite of what our Movement was founded to propound all those years ago in 1993. Probably the biggest clanger is something which Frank hasn't directly referenced - Winston's in-public support for the privatization of a state asset (namely, the Auckland Airport).

But we all have pasts - particularly those of us who've effectively spent something like forty years straight in politics - and while previous actions can be quite instructive in helping us to understand where someone's come from ... I find myself customarily FAR more interested in what they're doing now (or, for that matter, over the last ten to twelve years) as compared to what they were doing quite literally almost twenty years ago.

This is where Frank's analysis falls down.

Nobody - other than the most diehard and counterfactual pro-NZF zealots - would sincerely seek to argue that National-NZF '96 was a good idea. Or anything other than a horrible, right-wing inflected disaster. Winston himself, and to his credit, not only walked out of Government in protest against National's ongoing neoliberal agenda ... but even, later that decade, outright apologized to the nation for ever going into coalition with the Nats in the first place. (As an aside - the journalist who gave me an electronic copy of the newspaper clipping detailing this happening was none other than Frank Macskasy. It is unfortunate that this tangible evidence of reversal of position by Winston was not deemed significant enough for inclusion in Frank's piece on significant things we did in the late 1990s; presumably because it didn't easily fit the narrative)

The other points which desperately needed to be included in Frank's article yet which evidently must have been left on the cutting-room floor include i) our actions in and around government *since* 1998 (i.e. the 2005-2008 co-operation with the Labour Party and even, later, the Greens); and ii) what we've done and said both out of Parliament and in Opposition since then.

As applies our record from 2005-2008, the evidence is clear: New Zealand First is no Neoliberal party. Otherwise, why would we have pushed for unprecedented rises in the minimum wage commensurate with a figure of about a dollar per year (and effective scrapping of youth rates)? Why would we have delivered the renationalization of KiwiRail? Or secured a thousand extra front-line police plus three hundred support staff?

There are numerous other examples drawn from that three-year period to cite ... but even considered in the most superficial manner, renationalizing assets, raising wages, and pouring vastly more funding into an essential state service (for such the provision of law and order surely is) hardly smack of "Neoliberalism".

Indeed, given the privatization of assets, undermining of real wages, and slashing of state services are pretty much the sine qua non criterion for a given party or regime being "neoliberal" ... I'd even go so far as to say that our more recent Record In Office is tantamount to us being Neoliberalism's very Antithesis Incarnate.

This trend doesn't exactly abate during either the Wilderness Years from 2008-2011 (during which time, I joined the Party - because it appeared to be the strongest anti-Neoliberal force available), or for the period running from late-2011 to the present day in which we've been back in Parliament.

On issues like the privatization of state assets or the Government and Reserve Bank's ongoing quixotic obsession with controlling inflation rates at the expense of both currency and unemployment concerns ... for the longest time, New Zealand First effectively seemed to be standing alone. I am more than happy to be proven wrong about this, but I don't seem to recall either of Labour or the Green Party putting forward serious policy nor legislative proposals to comprehensively #Renationalize stolen Kiwi assets, or fundamentally reform the Reserve Bank Act to move our country's key monetary policy instrument away from the avowedly Neoliberal theoretical underpinnings and preferences which had so deleteriously constrained it for so long.

I do not deny that some of Winston's rhetoric from 1996-1998 was seriously average ... but to ignore all of the above in favour of insisting that a specific interpretation of what he said two decades ago is absolutely and axiomatically what we believe today seems almost scurrilous. Or at the very least rather willfully myopic.

Matters become even worse when we see the oblique comparison between National-NZF on one hand (as the 'parties of the right', although the author doesn't name them as such), and Labour-Greens on the other (as the assumedly anti-neoliberal "left") towards the end of Frank's piece.

Certainly, nobody denies that the Green Party are generally pretty good when it comes to advocating for what's customarily a principled left-of-center and redoubtably anti-neoliberal position. This is one of the many reasons why I keep advocating #BlackGreen2017

Yet I seem to recall a certain co-leader of the Greens making the curious call during the last Election run-up to broadcast the claim that the Greens are allegedly more "pro-market" than National. They actually campaigned on lower company taxes, leaving the regressive GST-levy untouched, and "markets [being] a really good solution to the big challenges".

According to Frank's logic of taking quotes from a certain period of a Party's history, and then applying them at face-value as present-day ethos and proclivity ... surely this indicates that the Greens are in the same boat as New Zealand First when it comes to neoliberalism? Perhaps even a bit deeper into the vessel considering the fact that the Norman-quotes come from a mere two years ago, while the Winston-speeches are from twenty?

Further, consider the other party which Frank has identified as being of the (supportable) "left" in this country. Labour. Now we all know what they got up to in the 1980s. I won't waste half a piece by setting out exactly which still presently serving front-bench spokespeople did seriously, SERIOUSLY neoliberal things during and after Rogernomics. But that was closer in time to Winston's 1997 misadventures than either set of incidences is to the present day.

And more importantly, if Labour's severely mixed messages about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement are anything to go by, while New Zealand First has clearly and avowedly left our past mistakes in the rear-view mirror ... for the Parliamentary Labour Party, their own egregious missteps appear more a case of "objects in this mirror may be much closer than they appear".

New Zealand First lead the charge against the TPPA in Parliament. We put forward not one but TWO excellent bills to try and stop the TPPA and its worst effects from being allowed to happen here. In our vision for the future of New Zealand, foreign corporate power should NEVER be allowed to trump New Zealand people power. If that isn't 'anti-Neoliberal', then I really don't know what is.

Meanwhile, Labour - apart from initiating the negotiations which saw us tied into the TPPA to begin with - found itself embroiled in a serious internal contratemps that saw two out of the last four Leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party attempting to undermine the current one by outwardly supporting it. The end result of which was that Phil Goff was allowed to vote WITH the Government when it came to matters pertaining to the TPPA - and that's all stuff which has happened THIS year! (No word yet as to whether Goff will be allowed to deploy similar logic to vote against any legislation to lower or abolish the cost of tertiary education in this country yet, either, given his rather prominent role in establishing university fees here in the first place...)

Now all of this is not put forward out of spite or out of hand. I have no great interest in attacking either Labour or the Greens in this piece. But the plain fact of the matter is that if we apply Frank's own evidentiary standards which he's subjected us to, to the two parties he's quite happy to label as "left", then we inevitably wind up with a situation wherein they're attackable under exactly the same pernicious charge of "aiding, abetting and embodying Neoliberalism" as New Zealand First supposedly is.

Or, to phrase it another way - if we are to convict Winston of 'neoliberalism' on the basis of a speech made twenty years ago (and disregarding pretty much all the available evidence of his conduct, aspirations and beliefs for much of the two decades since, including the last time we were in/near Government) ... then we quite quickly wind up in a thankless and just about impossible situation wherein virtually everybody in or near Parliament ought be rhetorically tarred and feathered for much the same reason. If not outright more ardently, due to the far more recent (in the case of the Greens) and sustained (in the case of Labour) nature of their offending.

In summary - as I said at the outset, I often have considerable time and regard for what Frank publishes. I mean him no disrespect (in fact, quite the contrary) by seeking to engage with, critique, and riposte against his most recent piece.

But while it is probably too strong a term to state that charges of New Zealand First being 'neoliberal' are entirely "unfounded" (Frank's digging up of two speeches from twenty years ago does sort-of put paid to that) ... asserting that the present, modern New Zealand First which I joined up to some seven years ago is either i) 'neoliberal'; or ii) by implication, somehow more 'neoliberal' than, say, the Labour Party, makes an utter nonsense of the term.

I could go on at some (even greater) length, but I think the point is made.

New Zealand First has undeniably and unquestionably made some graven mistakes in the past. Many of us are amongst the first to acknowledge this. But we have also made strident and stringent contributions to the political good of our nation - often, although not exclusively, in the field of repealing and rolling back dire neoliberal 'reforms' wrought and put into play by parties other than our own.

Going into the 2017 Campaign, you're going to hear an awful lot of prognostication and punditry about New Zealand First's likely future prospects and potential political positioning. Much of it will be sensationalized. Some of it will be slanderous. And as always happens, there will be a bevvy of persons erroneously insisting that we're somehow "right-wing".

But look to the evidence - ALL of it, rather than piecemeal and cherrypicked slivers from several decades ago - and you'll quite rapidly start to get a proper picture of who and what we actually are.

"Neoliberal", whatever the actual meaning and import of the term, would appear to be pretty far down the list of terms which one could feasibly use.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

60% Of Migrants Not On Skill-Shortages List - Why John Key REALLY Wants More Immigration

About a month ago, I lodged an Official Information Act request with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The object of my inquiry was to attempt to discover just how many of the people applying for New Zealand Residency were actually on the long-term skill shortages list. Or, in other words, how many people coming here were bringing skills and aptitudes which we desperately need, and which can't otherwise be easily found in the general New Zealand Population.

The answer, somewhat to my surprise, was that the figure was around 40%. Or, phrased another way, a clear majority of migrants to New Zealand - some 60% - are not people whom we vitally need on an economic basis.

Why this matters is because for the longest time large-scale immigration commensurate with a figure the size of the population of Nelson turning up in our midst every year was justified to us on the basis that these people were bringing essential skills which we needed - and that our economy would surely begin to grind to a halt if we were to attempt to seriously curtail migration numbers.

That has been the argument issuing forth from the Government Benches every time somebody from New Zealand First, Labour, or civil society in general have sought to suggest that untrammeled population growth through immigration is at least partially responsible for spiraling Auckland house-prices and ongoing escalating pressure upon already over-subscribed infrastructure and social spending. (And, to be fair, it's not just the Opposition who've noticed this happening - even the Prime Minister now accepts that large-scale immigration has placed a strain upon infrastructure)

But recently, the discourse has changed. Building upon comments made by Finance Minister Bill English a couple of months ago, this week John Key added severe insult to ongoing economic injury by suggesting that the chief reason why we evidently continue to import thousands of workers not on the vital skill-shortages list ... is because New Zealand workers are, variously, lazy, on drugs, or unprepared to totally uproot their lives to move half-way round the country in pursuit of a nebulous and likely to disapparate vacancy several hundred kilometers away from home. Key has even made international headlines on everything from The Guardian to Breitbart for choosing to sell out his own country and people like this.

We shall leave aside new evidence which appears to suggest that easier access to marijuana appears to correlate with *less* worker absenteeism. Instead, the portions of Key's argument worth focusing upon are the more purely economic ones. The Prime Minister has claimed that one of the key reasons for employers (particularly in the horticultural and one would assume service sectors) to be so enthusiastic for immigrant labour is because Kiwi workers are allegedly "lazy". The counter-claim made by Union officials and others is that unscrupulous employers in the industries in question are seeking to pay exploitatively - even illegally - low wages to their workers, which Kiwi labour will quite often not stand for.

Nor is the enthusiasm some more malevolent employers have for migrant labour confined to things like unpaid overtime and straight-up unrenumerated hours of work. Other factors include the greater difficulty many migrants have in pursuing workplace grievances or insisting upon their rights due to language barriers or a lack of domestic contacts with which to hold employers to account. Unions have also raised serious concern about the coercive realities represented by bosses being able to revoke the visas of migrant workers who speak up, thus having them deported.

From the perspective of a migrant worker, this is all obviously seriously bad. But the effects and ambit of what's been going on here don't just affect them. Instead, the net impact of adding tens of thousands of extra workers to our labour market have an impact upon all those who participate in same - not just the more recent arrivals.

We know from the basic and elementary economic law of 'supply and demand' that the more supply there is to a market, the lower the price of the commodity in question will be. Labour is the service being supplied here. Adding supply - particularly supply which is buyable/hirable at a price rather below that which existing supply is available at - drags down the equilibrium price of that labour. In order to remain competitive with those who are willing (or less-willingly forced) to work for lower wages, workers must demand less pay and refrain from attempting to negotiate for pay-increases.

It also becomes harder to ensure the comprehensive unionization of industries and workplaces when you have situations like that we saw in Christchurch in 2014 wherein migrant workers find themselves pressured by their home-governments to not join a union or enlist the aid of one to resolve grievance claims in order to remain preferable for malevolent Kiwi employers.

The twin obvious justifications for why National continues to allow in thousands of migrant labourers who aren't on the long-term skill shortages list thus ought to be plainly obvious.

It's because our Government are working hand-in-glove with their economically exploitative employment-offering mates to attempt to artificially depress both pay and conditions in the broader New Zealand labour market - for everyone, not just migrant workers.

Ever since the roll-out of the Rogernomics economic "reforms" in the 1980s, take-home pay in real terms has been declining for workers in New Zealand. We have also witnessed ongoing attempts by successive Governments to corral and constrain Union power. But while they have evidently accomplished oh so much economic devastation for the ordinary person through direct legislative instruments, since the halting of the 'mainstream' Neoliberal 'revolution' in the mid-late 1990s following the running out of steam of Ruthanasia etc, more insidious means to further the same broad objectives have had to be pursued.

It is deeply regrettable that so many come to our shores in pursuit of a 'better life', only to find exploitation and marginalization awaiting them. I mean no malice nor antipathy towards our migrant populations and those seeking accession to Permanent Residency by writing this. But the grand and impersonal macroeconomic forces that our extant Neoliberal overlords have unleashed - which push and which pulverize propelled in no small part through population-flows drawn from across the ocean - do indeed deserve calling out and commentary upon.

It is, after all, our Government's fault rather than the 'malaise' of any migrant that we are in this situation to begin with. And therefore our collective responsibility, as voters and as citizens, to penetrate the murk and see what they're actually up to.

The figure of only 40% of those applying to gain Residency here as migrants who're able to meet essential, long-term skill-vacancies helps to show us quite conclusively that National's priorities when it comes to immigration are not exactly in the interests of ordinary New Zealanders.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Embedded At The New Zealand First Convention Part 3: What The Media Aren't Telling You About Tracey Martin's Tertiary Education Push

Saturday afternoon at NZF's Convention was set aside for a presentation on New Zealand First Tertiary Education Policy by spokesperson Tracey Martin. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but wondered privately whether it had something to do with the promised costings on free tertiary education which Tracey was widely rumoured to be pursuing.

Now to be clear, NZ First advocacy for abolishing ruinous barriers to tertiary education access in the form of spiraling fees and loan-debts for living-costs is not exactly new. I pushed for both this, a Universal Student Allowance, and debt write-off schemes for those working here in New Zealand in the 2011 Tertiary Education Policy which I prepared for that year's New Zealand First Manifesto.

But what makes Tracey's announcement on Saturday an absolute sea-change for us is something else. This is a fully-costed, comprehensively researched, and well fitted together wraparound policy set. Whereas previously, we sort of coasted through by pointing to - of all things - United Future-sourced costings for some of our tertiary policy (among other stopgap countermeasures); this time all the hard work to make sure the policy-set's viable has been prepared endogenously, and in such a way that it's not hard to look through the detail and see how the whole thing works.

But perhaps more importantly, the document with which we were presented on Saturday did something else: it directly compared and contrasted the dollar-figures to pay for what New Zealand First is proposing, against the present-day costs of the way we do student loans and allowances and all the rest of it (i.e. the machinery of tertiary education accessibility which we want to re-tread and replace) alongside it.

The exact figures, if you're interested, are $4.183 billion for the way things are now (equivalent to 1.67% of GDP); versus $4.638 billion for what New Zealand First is proposing for the future (equivalent to 1.86% of GDP).

As even somebody who failed 5th form maths twice like myself can see ... that's a comparative increase in cost of around $455 million (0.19% of GDP) - or, phrased in terms of National Party policy-priorities, a figure which is less than half of the $1.1 billion dollars per year that Bill English's "fiscally neutral" tax-cuts-and-GST-increase cost the government every single year; and one which is not too much larger than the $360 million per year which we used to receive from those assets which National flogged off earlier in the decade. It's approximately 17.5 pointless flag referendums (and three million dollars CHEAPER than the $458 million National was prepared to spend on changing our passports if 'their' flag won); or, using a more recent topical issue, about 2.5 times what it costs every year to enforce continued marijuana prohibition.

What I'm basically trying to say is: even though four hundred and fifty million sounds like a fair bit of cash (which it is) ... in the context of government programs, it's really not that huge a figure. Our existing neoliberal overlords have already demonstrated they're quite content just flat-out WASTING similar (if not inordinately larger) amounts of money - and with seriously questionable returns.

The key difference between spending several hundred million on funding a dramatically improved support for the accessibility of tertiary education in this country (and helping to keep recently-upskilled graduates both living and working here in the nation which paid for it) is that at the end of this process we actually *get* something for it other than an enduring hole in the books.

This is why I got quite annoyed on Tracey's behalf with some of the media framing around her proposal. Airing comments by Steven Joyce suggesting that the extra cost of our scheme would run into the "billions of dollars" without pointing out that the true increased cost of the scheme is a mere few hundred million dollars over the extant (and wasteful) status quo, as Jo Moir has done over at Stuff, is just plain irresponsible journalism.

Tracey has done some serious and sustained Good Work both for our Party and for the tertiary education sector generally by putting all this together. It is presumably a sign of the policy-set's strength and utility that opponents such as the Tertiary Education Minister feel they have to engage in counter-factual distortion in order to try and rubbish it.

I look forward to the thinking outlined in Tracey's latest policy push (including the concept of 'skill-debt' replacing 'financial debt'; and viewing education as an investment rather than a mere expense) permeating out further into conversations around and about the sector.

Because what we're doing right now clearly isn't working. Instead, we drive our young people overseas with ruinous debt, and then arrest them at the border for returning. We refuse to pay many less well off students who aren't being supported by their parents any minimum stipend to live on (while instead handing a modicum of money to those on the dole) - and then act surprised and tut-tut when it turns out they're borrowing to live.

If we're serious about building a smart, technologically and societally sophisticated economy going forward, then we need to be doing something different.

The policy-set outlined by Tracey Martin over the weekend represents exactly the kind of starting shot-in-the-arm which our education sector - and our young people - need in order to begin making this a reality.