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.

Not the war on men you’re looking for

It’s headline news: Labour supports re-starting a Law Commission review initiated by Simon Power to investigate possible changes in our judicial system including the option of adopting an inquisitorial approach in cases of sexual violence. Shocking stuff!

Hang on, why is that headline news? Because the Herald and David Farrar have chosen to spin this story into a tale of Labour’s continued War On Men.

Tom Scott has helpfully illustrated the debate with a cartoon in which the personification of Justice is clearly asking for it with her slutty attire and manhating ways.

There are so many things I want to say but just can’t find the words for. The statistics are all out there: the utter everyday common-ness of sexual assault. The under-reporting. The horrifyingly low level of prosecutions, much less convictions. The trauma and pain that survivors go through on a routine basis just to get a smidgen of justice.

All I can really focus on are these two incredibly ignorant statements from DPF’s hysterical little post:

Bear in mind that even if you are married to them, that is not proof [of consent].

If it is what you say vs what they say, you will lose.

And all day today, I’ve seen men on Twitter and Facebook say things like “if this happens men will be afraid to be in a room with a woman without a witness!” or “what if my ex suddenly decides to attack me with a false accusation?” or “how can I possibly prove my innocence when it’s their word against mine?”

Here’s the thing, men. If those ideas horrify you, you need to understand one thing: that’s how women feel all the time. These are the thoughts we’re already having. The reality is that somewhere between 1 in 3 and 1 in 4 women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime – and that’s an overall statistic, because it’s far higher for women of colour, for example.

I can appreciate that when the only version of this story you hear is the David Farrar “Labour will murder everything you hold dear” spin, you might start to get worried, and you might decide to completely ignore the realities of how our justice system treats sexual violence (9% estimated reporting rate, 13% conviction rate, awesome!).

But the only thing Labour is guilty of is considering an expert, independent review of our justice system. That’s all.

On the other hand, after a day of reading awful, heartless comments like “this is just about protecting victims’ feelings” I have to say this. If it were the radical man-hating straw-feminist outrage that the Herald and DPF are trying to sell you, you know what? It’s about damn time that the people who commit sexual assault are held to account for their actions, and far beyond time that we stopped persecuting their victims by putting them in the impossible situation of proving they never consented.

(Hat-tip to DawgBelly: 1, 2)

Labour will end the farce of “voluntary” school donations

When I was little, I went to a very well-to-do decile 10 public primary school. The kind of place situated in a neighbourhood full of private schools and a little bit insecure about it. So we did our best to fit it, with assemblies every Friday at which the national anthem was sung in both English and te reo Māori, archaic uniforms (no pants for the girls!) and “fees”.

Hang on. I did say “public” primary school, didn’t I?

Yes, my public, state-funded primary school must have been one of the first to start referring to voluntary donations as “fees”. In the school newsletter, in letters home to my parents, and in conversations where teachers would pull aside nine-year-old children like myself and deliver a lecture about how we “hadn’t paid our fees”.

I felt terrible. I wasn’t paying my way! I was going to be expelled! You had to pay your fees! But my mother sat me down and explained that it wasn’t a fee. It was a donation. The fine print on the forms they sent me home with spelled it out … barely. They had no right to demand payment – and no right to bully a child with

Back then I was baffled (now I get outraged). It wasn’t a fee. So why was it called a fee? Why was my teacher checking names off a list and hectoring children to pay? Why to this day are schools engaging in bullying, stigmatising tactics like attaching tags to children’s bags to show who’s paid and who hasn’t?

Education is a basic human right, and every child deserves to receive the same basic level of it. It is criminal that schools put this kind of pressure on kids and their families – and more criminal that some of them probably have to due to chronic underfunding.

So imagine my righteous joy this morning to discover that the Labour Party agrees with me.

Labour will provide an annual grant of $100 per student to schools that stop asking parents for “voluntary” donations to help fund their day-to-day spending, Labour Leader David Cunliffe says.

Like I said on Twitter, education needs to be meaningfully free. That means proper funding for our schools and an end to the farce of “voluntary donations”.

The dirtiest election campaign backfires

Yesterday looked like it was going to be a pretty bad day. There were scandalous revelations, blatant lies, unrestrained corruption gnawing at the very heart of the left. At least, that’s what we were promised.

But in the end what we got was a pretty standard, decade-old MP’s letter to Immigration asking about timeframes for a constituent(1) and a chorus cry from people who were never going to support anything Labour did anyway for Cunliffe to resign.

What happened next was interesting.

As the story developed – or rather, undeveloped, because a few pictures of someone’s wife standing next to Rick Barker is not the Zimmerman Telegram – I saw a lot of people on my (admittedly leftwing, Wellington-focused) Twitter feed coming together to call bullshit on the whole thing.

https://twitter.com/nintendoug/status/479142090039754752

https://twitter.com/blackdoris23/status/479099360169304064

My personal favourite:

Even the satire accounts got into it:

And of course, there were posts at The Standard along the same lines: (2)

This isn’t a redemption story by any means. It’s not smart to issue categorical denials of something when you’ve been in politics for 15 years – but of course it’s also not smart to prevaricate and say you’ll check, because then Paddy Gower follows you around with a microphone all day demanding a yes/no answer (and check out the audio of Cunliffe’s stand-up yesterday for some fantastic examples of journos demanding an answer which will give them a good headline.)

But it is, really, a story of hope. Because you have to ask yourself just how desperate the Nats have to be if their first kinghit on Cunliffe is an 11-year-old pro-forma MP’s letter which says nothing more than “how long is this going to take, yo.”

I expect there’ll be more – I figured this election year was going to be nasty – but we know their game and we are refusing to play it.

(1) This is where Matthew Hooton demands Donghua Liu’s 2003 street address because what if David Cunliffe’s office drafted a letter about someone not from his actual electorate, huh? HUH? CORRUPTION!

(2) This is where the right accuses us of acting on orders from the Party. Nope, just a simple case of great minds thinking alike!

ETA: no, this morning’s poll isn’t great, but I defer to Dimpost’s analysis on that one.