Looking at the big policy picture

(This was originally posted at The Standard.)

Despite John Key’s key message du jour, the parties of the Opposition are talking policy. A (totally unscientific) look at party websites reveals Labour and the Greens have put out hundreds of pages of policy information – compared to National’s 26.

But a word count isn’t really proof of anything more than a party’s ability to get someone to churn out copy. And even having a lot of policies isn’t proof of a real plan to improve the lives of all New Zealanders. When all you give is a few scattered bullet points detailing short-term quick fixes

So what do Labour’s policy releases to date tell us about their plan?

The Best Start package including extended paid parental leave makes sure every newborn’s basic needs can be met. Upgrading schools and extending free GP visits carries them through childhood, indrier, warmer houses which their parents can afford to heat thanks to lower power prices. They’ll be able to afford to go to university, or get a secure apprenticeship if that’s what they want to do with their lives. And once they start work they’ll be paid a fair wage for their labour, their basic rights will be protected, they’ll be able to afford a home of their own if they want one, and in time they can get support and take the time to stay at home with their own babies if they have them.

All this in the most beautiful country in the world with a strong economy built on skills and value-added manufacturing, low unemployment and low government debt.

The Greens want to help our poorest children by investing in health, education and supporting families directly in the early weeks of a child’s life. They’ll boost early childhood education, healthcare, give kids rivers they can swim in, and rebuild our economy through green investment, digital manufacturing, and upgrading our infrastructure and transport to meet the demands of our changing world. And yes, they’ve done the numbers too.

It makes a total mockery of John Key’s claims that the Opposition are focusing on dirty politics and avoiding the policy debate. Labour and the Greens are presenting smart, practical, but ambitious ideas which build a picture of a better, more prosperous, more caring New Zealand.

It certainly isn’t the left that’s running away from debating policies. Maybe the leader of a party deeply implicated in dragging our political discourse into the mud of tabloid attack politics should consider the beam in his own eye first.

The bottomless Labour-Green divide

Mea culpa. It’s a bit of a Buzzfeed-style clickbait headline, but it’s also a political meme which I really wish we could put out to pasture.

It seems like every time Labour (or the Greens) announce a policy the first question (after “what does John Key think about this?”) is “But the Greens (or Labour) have a different policy to the one you just announced! How can you possibly work together in government?

Anything even vaguely associated with Internet-MANA gets it even worse.

It’s not a question you often see posed to National, and it’s tempting to make this a moan about media bias. But the simple facts are National isn’t in the same position as Labour or the Greens. The most extremist party on their side – Colin Craig’s Conservative Party – are very unlikely to get into Parliament unless there’s some fundamental[ist] shift in the polls which means National throws them a Hail Mary seat.

The two parties guaranteed to support National – ACT and United Future – have good steady records of rolling over and voting for whatever National tells them too.

And Winston, well. He doesn’t agree with anyone on anything if he can help it, but also has form for signing up to whichever side gives him a prestigious title and a single big policy which he can point to as a major concession (the Gold card being the canonical example.)

So let’s put aside the idea of media bias and consider ourselves lucky that on the left we have three genuine options to vote for, four if you want to ignore the Māori Party’s stated priority of doing what it takes to get “a seat at the table” and think they’ll get more than one seat.

The problem for the left is that, especially with the aforementioned total-lack-of-real-disagreement on the right, disagreement is being treated as antagonism*, and reconciling those disagreements is being treated as a problem for MMP.

Having parties with different views forming a government is not a weakness of MMP. It is the strength of MMP.

The whole point of proportional representation is that each party has exactly as much power as the voters of New Zealand have given it. Instead of a winner-takes-all system where a party can do whatever it likes on the back of only 35% support, enough parties have to find common ground that you could reasonably assume the outcome is the best possible representation of the will of the people.

So it makes no sense at all for this constant pearl-clutching over the Greens and Labour having different policies. If they had identical policies they wouldn’t exist as two separate political parties. It makes no sense at all to keep demanding bottom lines and non-negotiables because we simply don’t know how the chips are going to fall. Where will Labour’s party vote end up? Will the Greens build on 12% or stay steady? How will Winston or IMP do?

It’s easy to be cynical and wonder if the constant highlighting of Labour/Green/IMP differences is part of a narrative to pre-judge any leftwing coalition as unstable and risky. But I think a lot of people are still stuck in a First Past the Post mode of thinking, where we have two major parties, they rule the roost, and the “minor” parties are mere annoyances who will fall in line with National or Labour as appropriate.

But the left’s diversity is a strength. We have more ideas to consider, more viewpoints in the mix, and our votes don’t just get a leftwing government elected, they determine what that leftwing government looks like – a strong Labour with several support options; a strong Green presence at the table; an IMP spoiler; even, if you want to take a risk on Winston’s whims and the randoms he’ll bring in with him, a New Zealand First to pull to the centre.

Labour and the Greens having different policies before an election is a good thing. After the election, when we’ve had our say, they can work out where there’s room to move and what mix of policies they can/want to implement.

It’s not like they’re going to sit back and say “Nup, not going to negotiate with you, going to give the Tories confidence and supply instead.”

… I mean, I can only hope!

 

*There is also actual antagonism between Labour and Green and IMP folk, no denying.

The Nation’s leaders’ debate

This morning in New Zealand politics can best be summed up with one fantastic image.

Image swiped and cropped from @petergraczer
TALK TO THE HAND, COLIN.

I dragged myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 9am to tune in to the first leaders’ debate of the election season – and it’s mostly Colin Craig’s fault. Had he not taken legal action to force the producers to give him a speaking slot I might honestly have missed that it was even on!

For that, and for trying to talk over Metiria Turei, resulting in the photo above, you have my grudging thanks, Colin.

In the true spirit of 21st century pseudo-journalism, here are my thoughts (and some others’) as they were tweeted in real time.

(Sale to overseas buyers, obviously.)

(It’s a great line, but also a deliberately-engineered political meme.)

(Full credit to @petergraczer for the fantastic pic of Metiria’s take-no-crap attitude.)

The right to choose – early and safely

Abortion isn’t a topic which gets a lot of talk-space in New Zealand politics, but that may change this year with the Green Party unveiling a staunchly pro-choice Women’s Policy which includes decriminalisation, guaranteed access, and support for pregnant people no matter what they choose to do.

(I say “may” change because the political conversation is already plenty crowded, what with Banks, Internet Mana, Oravida, the TPPA, the GCSB, etc.)

In any case, it’s created a lot of discussion, especially over at The Standard. I’ve made a few rather long comments there, and have collected some key points here for future reference. It might be a little incoherent, so apologies in advance.

Is there support for abortion law reform?

Yes, if you just walk up to people out of the blue and say “Let’s kill babies in the womb, good times!!!” you’re probably going to get a negative reaction.

But, shockingly, that’s not how the discussion goes. Alison McCulloch did a road trip through NZ to promote her book and talk to people about abortion, and she said that many people were quite happy to discuss the issues, and very interested to learn that abortion is still a crime in NZ.

Every time I’ve seen decriminalisation raised in a political context (i.e. by the Greens this week and at Labour Party conferences) there’s always a few people who don’t realise it’s still a crime. Once we get that message more widespread, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of will to change.

Access in New Zealand

A lot of people use statistics about how many abortions are performed in NZ – about 15,000 per year – but it’s a really insincere argument. A number is a number. You can’t make any assumptions about whether that’s too many, not enough or just right until you look at the circumstances of people getting, or not getting, abortions.

Until Southern DHB began offering abortion services at Southland Hospital last year, anyone in Invercargill or Gore who wanted to get an abortion would have needed to travel to Christchurch and put aside 5-6 hours to be at the Lyndhurst clinic. Do you really think every unwilling pregnant person in Southland would have had the resources or ability to do that?

There are still no certifying consultants or abortion providers on the West Coast. Do you think it’s easy for a woman – who probably already has children, or work, or can’t tell other people her plans – to get over the Southern Alps for at least two certifying appointments and a procedure?

If you argue for the status quo to continue (or, like Judith Collins, that the status quo is “working”), you are arguing against pregnant people having a legal right to end their pregnancies, or the access to do so.

The 20-week limit

The number of abortions done at anywhere near 20 weeks are vanishingly small, and usually performed for serious medical reasons or because the pregnant person has been prevented from getting a termination sooner. This story from The Wireless is a good example of why that can happen. (The Wireless did a great series of articles on abortion in NZ for their “Free” theme.)

The meme that women are just lounging around the house pregnant and then go “Oh, whoops, I don’t want a baby after all” halfway through is an anti-abortion myth. Unfortunately, things go wrong in pregnancy and late-term abortions are sometimes required to save lives (yes, I know, how ironic 🙄 ) And sometimes – because of archaic, condescending processes like we currently have in NZ – people don’t have access to abortion services earlier.

The irony is that policies like the Greens’ will make it easier for people to get early medication abortions, long before there’s any argument to be made about whether or not “it’s a baby”. So if you really oppose “unnecessary” 20-week abortions, you should support this policy.

Supporting the Greens

To be a little harsh – if you were a Greens supporter already and this policy has changed your mind, I venture to suggest you hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to Green Party policy. They’ve had liberalising our abortion laws on the books for years.

Russel & Metiria – or Winston?

Yesterday Rob Salmond commented on Labour’s two likeliest options for coalition partners after the 2014 election, and had some interesting things to say about New Zealand First and the Greens.

But I must beg to differ on the suggested advantages of offering a plum deal to Winston and expecting Russel and Metiria to play along for the sake of a leftwing government at all costs.

Of course Labour shouldn’t rule out working with Winston, because the cardinal rule of NZ politics is “Never underestimate the power of Winston”. And he’s proven himself quite capable of backing good social policies, as long as they’re populist and have Winston’s name all over them.

But he’s also a man who has happily settled for completely empty titles in the past – the role of Treasurer, or Minister-of-Foreign-Affairs-outside Cabinet, must be the definition of ‘baubles of power’.

Then we have the Greens, who have steadily increased their share of the vote, and who have become increasingly pragmatic about the abilities of a mid-sized party in an MMP Parliament to get things done.

Interestingly, published around the same time as Rob’s post was this from Chris Trotter in the Press, on the challenge faced by the Green Party:

Only the Greens have grasped the need to turn the mechanisms of the market to new, environmentally sustainable and socially integrative purposes.

That being the case, we should not be surprised at the constant and increasingly aggressive misrepresentation of the Greens’ political project.

I don’t think Rob was wilfully misrepresenting the Greens in his post – but he has shown a bit of a tendency to assume that everything they do is a calculated power play. In the post linked above, he states

I think this realization underscores Metiria Turei’s weekend musing about co-Deputy Prime Ministers, which I imagine she knows is simply not going to fly in 2014. Now that she has floated the idea, it gives the Greens another thing to “very reluctantly give away” in the negotiations.

In an earlier post at Polity, he asserts that it was the Greens who leaked details of their offer for a pre-election deal – something I’ve not seen proven anywhere. (Personally, I think it’s just as likely that a certain freshly-departed, strongly anti-Green, Labour MP could have done it to further wedge the parties apart.)

Yet Jim Anderton was Deputy PM with 10 Alliance MPs following the 1999 election. And as Rob himself has pointed out, pre-election deals aren’t unheard of.

I’m seeing a tendency to assume that New Zealand First, while hazardous to handle, can be domesticated; whereas the Greens are inherently untrustworthy. If we take it back to Trotter’s column, it makes sense: the Greens, however many votes they get or however many diplomatic overtures they make, will always be the outside party because of their fundamentally different approach to politics and society.

But I see two problems with this strategy.

Not enough voters on the left are this pragmatic. There are those who would happily accept a Labour/NZ First alliance – who would prefer it to a Labour/Green coalition. But there are also those who do not trust Winston, will never trust Winston, and would rather stay at home on election day than suffer the notion of Winston or any of his erratic mini-me MPs sitting at the Cabinet table.

And the Greens won’t be willing to get stiffed for the sake of placating Winston’s ego. They’re a principled party, and while it could definitely lose them some of their softer Labour converts, their base wouldn’t punish them harshly for sitting on the cross-benches, voting confidence and supply on a case-by-case basis, if the alternative is playing second fiddle to a party with half the number of seats.

David Cunliffe has stuck with the line, ‘we’re not ruling anything out until the voters have had their say.’ It’s the best way to operate in MMP. But it’s natural to think about what a Labour-led government will look like after the election. And I think the Greens deserve to be taken a bit more seriously.