Do National know they lost?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but do National know they lost the election?

The tone of National’s messaging hasn’t really shifted since the formation of the new government, nor from the days John Key was their leader. It’s still snarky, soundbitey attacks on Labour’s credibility which are designed to stick in the mind just long enough to create a sense of disquiet.

But it simply doesn’t work when you’re at the very beginning of a government’s term, and even less so when you were holding the levers of power just over one month ago.

I remarked on Twitter, “If only Steven Joyce had very very recently been in a position to seek official advice on such matters.” Because that’s the kind of line you trot out when you’ve been in Opposition for a couple of years; when the government of the day has presumably had time to staff up, plan their work programme, and start getting full detailed policy advice from their departments.

The balance of power does not flip overnight. Ordinary people are quite willing to understand when it’s your first day on the job, things are going to take a while to get up to speed – which is a significant reason that the new government’s swift and decisive announcements about te reo in primary schools, the three-strikes law, foreign land ownership, and equal pay have been so delightful. We’ve all become comfortable talking about “the first 100 days” but to be honest, no one expects the first week or two to be that interesting. And yet they have been. No wonder the Tories are scared.

This next tweet strikes a very different but equally odd tone – and given the fixation with fritters and fishing I start to wonder if someone on Bill’s social media team wants to chuck it all in and get out on the water:

Obviously “great gains” is up for debate and exactly which “NZers” have made them likewise, but have a look at the overall vague, managerial tone of the thing. This is the press release you put out when you’re still Prime Minister and you’re calling back to the “success” of your much more likeable predecessor to distract from the fact you’re one more junior MP’s police investigation away from implosion.

But this has been National’s double-sided problem since Key stepped down: they’ve tried to keep politicking as though he didn’t, and they tried to do it with Mr Managerial Boringness as leader. They’ve continued to market themselves in the same snarky laidback guy-you’d-like-to-have-a-beer-with tone, to horrible spaghetti-related effect, and they never figured out how to make English’s boring-but-safe managerialism into a campaign asset.

He’s great as a Minister of Finance who pushes through damaging rightwing policies as though they’re plain old common-sense fiscal management. He’s terrible as a fighting champion. He was meant to be above petty politics and throwaway insults about snapper quotas, but that’s all they’ve given him.

The bigger problem for National is this: ordinarily you’d say they’ve got three years to work this out, while the new government is busy finding the caucus rooms and pathfinding to their offices in the Escherian nightmare that is the Beehive.

But this is an activist government which is already rolling out strong policies and re-writing the story on employment relations, justice, education, and health, the very purpose of government and its relationship to people. And National is offering no serious critique, no alternative narrative, no vision (admittedly it would have been miraculous for them to find one between election day and now.) Add to that: voters like to back winners. Add to that: National has tapped all its possible reserves of support, sucking every other rightwing party dry. It has nowhere to go but down.

Maybe they’re worried about leaving any space for the new government to fill and mark out its agenda. But they’re only doing more damage to themselves by continuing to mis-market their leader, or acting like there’s going to be an election in a month and all that matters is getting points on the board.

They just end up creating exactly that space for Labour, the Greens and NZ First to demonstrate that there’s a much better way to run a country. Works for me.

The shape of our new government

So here’s what our new government promises, as reported by Stuff:

Some key points from the NZF deal:
– $1b per annum Regional Development Fund,
​- Re-establish the New Zealand Forestry Service
​- Review and reform of the Reserve Bank Act
​- Progressively increase the Minimum Wage to $20 per hour by 2020
​- Comprehensive register of foreign-owned land and housing
​- Free doctors’ visits for all under 14s
​- Free driver training for all secondary students
​- A new generation SuperGold smartcard containing entitlements and concessions
​- A royalty on exports of bottled water
​- Commit to re-entry to Pike River
​- A full-scale review into retail power pricing
​- MPs allowed to vote on a potential referendum on euthanasia

Some of the big parts of the Green Party/Labour confidence and supply agreement include:

– Introduce a Zero Carbon Act with a goal of net zero emissions by 2050
– A referendum on personal cannabis use by 2020
– Establish and independent Climate Commission. This would have the power to bring agricultural emissions in but would not do this immediately
– All new legislation to have a climate impact assessment analysis
– Investigate a Green Transport Card to reduce public transport costs
– Reprioritise spending towards rail and cycle infrastructure
– Stop the Auckland East-West link
– Begin work on light rail to the airport in Auckland
– “Significantly increase” the Department of Conservation’s funding
– Remove “excessive” benefit sanctions
– Make progress on eliminating the gender pay gap within the core public sector
– A rent-to-own scheme as part of KiwiBuild
– Re-establish the Mental Health Commission
– A wind-down on the government-subsidised irrigation

That’s some damn fine government.

We’re still to see who’s going to be taking which ministerial roles (Stuff also has a handy list of which portfolios have gone to NZ First and the Greens), but that list right there promises some genuine change and progress for New Zealand over the next three years.

There’s also a broader message, and a distinct step away from the government of the past nine years: the state has an important role to play in our lives. It can create jobs. It can share out the wealth of the nation fairly. It can and it should ensure that every single person in our country lives a decent life.

Which was already pretty obvious to those of us on the left end of the spectrum, but was anathema to the government of John Key and Bill English, who were happy to take the credit for good things happening but were missing in action as more and more wealth was taken out of workers’ hands by a greedy few, as corporate neglect literally killed people, as multinationals grabbed everything they could get and expected us to carry the consequences and ensure them ever-greater profits.

This is the change of direction we needed, and a more significant one than I’d hoped for, honestly. It’s not perfect, and many things can happen over a parliamentary term – three years is an eternity in politics when you’re at the beginning of them. But it is a start.

And it must be a start. As I’ve said before, to avoid cruising toward defeat in a term or two there needs to be a plan; a strategy, if you’ll forgive the horrific public sector management speak, of continuous improvement. A minimum wage of $20 by 2020 (perhaps sooner, if political capital allows?) is great, combined possibly with introducing the Living Wage for the core public service, for a first term government. But we need to be thinking about term two ($25 minimum wage? Living Wage for all central and local government employees, including contractors?) and term three (Living Wage = minimum wage?) and treating each milestone as a step, not a finish line. Free doctors’ visits for under 14s is a start: the goal must be free doctors’ visits for all. “Progress” to eliminate sexist pay structures in the public service is a start; the goal must be ending sexist discrimination in pay.

I know the temptation is to sit back and look at the amazing things this Labour-led government will deliver over the next three years. But one thought keeps popping into my head this week: the work is never done. There is always more to do, and we cannot lose sight of that. We cannot rest on the achievements of the past; that’s how you get third-term arrogance and stagnation.

This government can achieve huge things, and shift politics in New Zealand so that greedy, self-interested, narrow-minded right wing bullshit never gains sway again. But it will take work. And I think we’re ready for it.

We have a government; what’s next?

I’ve got a piece up at Radio NZ about the next steps for our new goverment: After the sigh of relief, time to set a decisive course

For those of us on the left, the temptation will be to down tools and do whatever we can to support Ardern. Our instinct will be to look beyond the first three years, to set the course for a two- or three- or, gods be good, a four-term Labour-led government. See the big picture! It won’t happen overnight but it will happen!

I caution against that.

Let’s be honest, I’m most proud of getting the phrase “wombling free” into a published piece of political commentary.

The lessons from the 2017 election … so far

Hey, we still don’t have a government! Nevertheless, the Wellington Fabians got together last night to hear Jane Clifton, Morgan Godfery, Mike Smith and me talk about the election aftermath. Here’s my speech notes.

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The 2017 general election is over, and we may or may not have a government by the time I’m talking to you. I’ve left myself a bit of wiggle room in my notes.

For me, the big lesson of the election is this: We still have a lot to learn.

People do not understand MMP. I’m not talking about the usual scapegoats – young people, unengaged people, migrants. I mean political nerds like us. We’re still psychologically attached to electorates, shown in the criticism levelled at the Greens candidates in places like Maungakiekie and Nelson and Ōhāriu – criticism levelled by experienced campaigners who absolutely know better.

We have to learn that electorate victories do not really matter; the party vote matters. A good electorate candidate should be able to turn the party vote out; a good electorate MP should be drawing a very clear connection between their work as a local representative and the party they represent. Instead of attacking Chlöe Swarbrick, Labour strategists might want to ask why we’re losing the party vote in some of our safest traditional seats.

We still have a First Past the Post mindset. Often this criticism is levelled at the media, who have perpetuated memes like the supposed moral mandate of the largest party – completely contrary to the spirit of MMP, which is about getting a government which represents a true majority of voters. But Labour is guilty of this too, agreeing to “major party leader” debates which perpetuate the idea it’s a two-horse race, or that the identity, competence and performance of one person, the next Prime Minister is more important than the debate of ideas.

It’s easy to put on the hindsight blinkers and say, but we do have two major parties and a couple of minor ones – now that Labour is up on 37%. But for a good proportion of this campaign they were polling closer to the minor parties than to National. Only ingrained bias really set them apart. That kind of thinking works for National, who have pursued a fairly successful strategy of devouring all their potential coalition partners. It does not work for the left.

There’s a good argument to be made that by trying to pursue the same strategy as National – by staking out traditionally Green issues like climate change as core Labour policies, for example – Labour weakened the overall position of the left in the election. However tremendous the individual result for Labour – and there are some amazing MPs coming in who will do fantastic work – the balance of Parliament has not really shifted. National remains a powerful force, and Ardern’s success came chiefly at the cost of the Greens. Some people within Labour probably think that’s a good thing. They are wrong.

Here’s my refrain: the left simply has to be better at communicating our values to people who aren’t already on our side. A significant part of the Labour surge, the Jacindamania, came from people already on the left projecting their values onto Ardern: she’s a woman, she’s young, she must represent a new way of doing things, a more progressive outlook, a fresh approach, if you will.

She was also aided I think by the brief period she had to make an impact, and time will tell if those values really shine through, and if they’re finally able to crack those “soft National voters”. Every Labour leader since Goff has enjoyed a bump of support immediately following their ascension; where it always falls away is when they weren’t able to deliver on the values and ideas people projected on them, and couldn’t build a broad, popular support base.

Sexism was and remains a major issue. Just yesterday a Herald article proclaimed “Comedian’s girlfriend enters Parliament”, and with no offence to Guy Williams, I think Golriz Ghahraman, as our first refugee MP whose work history includes the trials of Cambodian and Yugoslavian war criminals, is pretty deserving of her own headline.

Madeleine Holden at The Spinoff has written an excellent summary of all the misogyny, casual and calculated, which plagued the election, and gives special mention to the case of Metiria Turei. I know the accepted narrative is already well set: the Greens should have expected the literal witch hunt which ensued, and if only Metiria had grovelled more and worn a bit of sackcloth and ash on Checkpoint it would all have turned out differently. I reject that. Metiria Turei demonstrated exactly what she intended to: no one cared about social welfare. No one really wanted to talk about the fact women were being imprisoned and even driven to suicide by the hostile, harrowing attitude of Work and Income until a powerful, high-profile woman threw down a bombshell. No one wanted to address the fact that these issues are structural, and deliberate, and have been perpetuated by more than one government.

The reaction to Turei’s bombshell warrants some serious reflection by our media. It was fair to question her, to illuminate the broader issues in play – Mihi Forbes produced some amazing coverage of the reality for people living on benefits – but the point at which commentators felt okay making insinuations about Turei’s sex life, the point at which John Campbell of all people made the argument that life couldn’t be all that bad if she wasn’t forced into sex work – well. As Giovanni Tiso wrote at Pantograph Punch, “you knew it was as good as it gets” if even Campbell is doing it. It was unnecessary and vicious, and the message clearly sent was that poor brown women get no quarter, in a country where men like Peter Talley get knighthoods.

Discussing sexism inescapably brings us to TOP, and one of the enduring questions of New Zealand politics: will we ever see another election without an egotist millionaire white guy deciding he knows what’s best for everyone and it’s himself? Last time I spoke at the Fabians there was some support for Gareth Morgan. I stand by what I said then: he should never have been the frontman of the party, because that made it look like an ego trip. The fact he chose to be the frontman of the party showed it was an ego trip.

His association with a man like Sean Plunket, who think it’s really clever to tweet disgusting things and then say, “Look how toxic Twitter is, people attacked me for tweeting disgusting things!” demonstrated that TOP was never about promoting serious evidence-based policy or altering the way politics is discussed in New Zealand: it was about a couple of guys deciding they were the smartest men in the room and that entitled them to be in charge. They didn’t have to persuade people, because anyone who questioned them was just an idiot who was never going to vote for them anyway. The only good news is, hardly anyone did.

A final question that’s been popping up: do coalition negotiations take too long? I feel very strange about this because I was twelve in 1996 and I apparently remember those six long weeks without a government better than actual adults! This is what happens when you have fewer parties (partly a result of National’s cannibal strategy) and only one of those parties can feasibly work with either side. This is what happens when you have Winston. This is what happens when both National and Labour try to have their cake and eat it too, denouncing NZ First’s more objectionable policies and statements but never quite ruling them out. It’s the players, not the game, and I think we’d be better served if the press gallery found something else to report on until an actual announcement gets made – if anything, denying Winston the opportunity to grandstand on the telly every evening would probably speed up the process!

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In the Q&A a number of questions came up around who Labour’s base is these days, why the tax message was so poisonous to them (again), and how to get cut-through with their messages, which was a great excuse for me to re-state my very strong opinions on values and framing; instead of repeating myself again, here’s some previous posts I’ve done on tax, values, and Labour’s base. Also: buy this book.