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.

~

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!

~

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.

So … what’s next?

Election night was, well, a bit anticlimactic, in big-picture terms. The utter loss of the Māori Party was a shock, and a few seats changed hands, and Labour thoroughly shook off its dismal 2014 and 2011 results, yes; but what fundamentally changed? After everything that happened, after three major parties changing or losing leaders in the twelve months before election day (plus Peter Dunne), after Jacindamania and the desperate search for a youthquake narrative …

National are still on 45%. Winston is the kingmaker. As all bar one or two rogue polls stated he would be. The status quo is pretty damn quo.

Personally, I wouldn’t bet money one way or the other on where Winston will go. In strict policy terms, NZF is much more aligned to Labour and the Greens than National, and polls showed NZF voters wanted them to go with Labour. But National are supremely pragmatic when it comes to retaining power, and unburdened by any broader principles which might get in the way of making a deal.

A side note: The repeated line of questioning about whether there’s a rule, convention, or expectation around the largest party forming the government demonstrate how we’ve really failed to grasp the core function of MMP: delivering a balanced one which is the most appealing to the broadest number of people, not an all-powerful one based on arbitrary geographical lines. Whether we end up with a National/New Zealand First government, or a Labour/Greens/NZ First one, or Labour-plus-one-with-the-other-on-the-cross benches, our country will, at least theoretically, be governed and laws determined by politicians representing a majority of voters.

Of course the theory all gets very messy once you’re dealing with real human beings, and especially when the one holding most of the cards is Winston Peters, but that’s politics for you.

Anyway: it feels like there’s little to do but wait.

Except.

Now more than ever, we need to remember that parliamentary power is far, far from the only power there is. Whoever forms the next government, they answer to the people.

It was people who forced the government to pass proper health and safety laws, abolish zero hour contracts, shut down the sealing of Pike River mine, deliver equal pay for aged care workers. It was people who made mental health and our horrific suicide rates a key election issue.

People coming together with a common cause – in unions, in neighbourhoods, in the streets, in the courts, and yes in goddamn Facebook groups too – wield, or should wield, the real power.

Be suspicious as hell of anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.

No matter whether our next Prime Minister is called Bill or Jacinda, it is on us to hold them to account. Hell, especially if it’s Jacinda, because the centre-left did not serve the country well by spending all nine of the Clark years going “shush, don’t make a fuss now we’re in government!!!”

Whatever campaign is close to your heart, it doesn’t stop now. We can’t hit pause for three years before talking about these things again. So many people spent the campaign lamenting the lack of education, engagement, how ill-served voters were by the parties or the media or the education system (because introducing compulsory civics would magically fix everything, obvs). So keep it up. Push the issues that matter to you. Rock up to your new MP, if you’ve got one, and demand they represent you. It’s their job.

At some point in 2018, after the next census, there’ll be a Māori Electoral Option, so if you qualify to be on the Māori roll and want to switch one way or the other, you have to do it then.

In 2019, there’ll be local body elections, which are even worse in terms of engagement, turnout and public interest, even though local councils have immensely important responsibilities. Run for office! Get your neighbours rarked up about a local issue! For god’s sake, vote!

In 2020 we get to go through this malarkey all over again. But we can achieve a hell of a lot in the meantime.

Here’s an old favourite to wake you up.

The truth behind the lobbyists who want the right to hit kids

New Zealand First’s Tracey Martin was on Q&A on the weekend floating the idea of a referendum on the old section 59 of the Crimes Act, i.e. the one about when it’s “reasonable” to hit your children. I’ll put my cards on the table straight away by refusing to call it that name – you know the one – because let’s be honest, the reason people call it “smacking” is so it sounds different from “hitting”, and the reason I call it “hitting” is because, like Sue Bradford, I refuse to draw lines about where or with what or how hard it’s OK to commit physical violence against children. The language I use may be loaded, but it’s no more than the other side’s.

Unsurprisingly, Family First were on the bandwagon before it even started rolling, with a typical Family First all-hat-no-cattle statement. Their “evidence” that the law isn’t working can be summarised as:

  • There’s more reporting of violence against children therefore more violence against children is occurring (not, “we have greater awareness that hitting kids is bad and thus more reporting is happening”)
  • The Police and CYFS/Oranga Tamariki are investigating a lot of reports of violence against children and choosing not to act on them (which is for some reason terrible)
  • A lot of people still don’t like the law (which definitely has nothing to do with Family First continually spinning bullshit about it)

Family First provide zero evidence that “good parents” are being prosecuted, much less convicted, for “just” a smack. Their assertion, now as it was 10 years ago, is that “good parents” – parents who want to hit their children – don’t like the law saying they shouldn’t. “Good parents” don’t like having the someone checking that their hitting of their children isn’t abusive, even though in the vast majority of cases, no further action is taken.

It feels a bit snarky of me to keep putting “good parents” in scarequotes, but they’re not mine, really. They’re Family First’s.

It’s very interesting when you look at their statements on parenting, and children, and violence, when they’re not discussing section 59, how certain themes come up again and again: poor people are abusers; brown people are abusers; the “real causes” of violence against children are drug abuse and solo mothers and working mothers (under the heading, “breakdown of family structure”) and those things exist in a vacuum.

While protesting against criminalizing some types of violence against children – where Good Parents are asserting their Rightful Authority over children who Need A Stern Lesson, and  exhortations to crack down on real abuse, Family First copy-paste articles from media sources like this one comparing long stints in daycare to child abuse, or this story from Vice, about five people in the Netherlands creating a co-parenting agreement.. Bed-sharing is child abuse too, and isn’t it convenient how that’s less culturally acceptable in Pākehā society, and sometimes the only option you have if you’re poor and living in a small, cold, damp rental?

Family First take articles like this one from Jarrod Gilbert in the Herald about the causes of child abuse, and conveniently cut it off right after the paragraph about 41% of child homicides being committed by mothers, but before the possible explanations for this and well before the conclusion that we aren’t focusing enough on prevention – say, by ensuring that our social services are able to be notified and investigate reports of “low-level” violence against children before situations escalate.

They stick headlines like “Child abuse out of control” on top of articles which specifically state increased numbers of notifications to CYFS may be because people feel more confident seeking help. While panicking about “good parents” having the authorities show up on their door, they positively salivate about “bad” parents having children removed from their care.

That’s the crux of it: the state cannot be swift and harsh enough in its treatment of those parents, those poor and/or Māori and/or unmarried parents who you know are abusing their kids, I mean just look at them; but it is a violent transgression to so much as question a good, white, Christian, married parent whose teenager was totally being disrespectful.

While clamouring for a crackdown on our culture of violence, it is simply impossible for Bob McCoskrie et al to consider that one key way we address a culture of violence is by not having a law which says that violence is okay. Because when people like him are doing it, it’s not violence at all.

I know a lot of genuinely well-intentioned people think this issue is more complex than I do. I appreciate people have different perspectives to me. And yes, if you want to throw that particular stone, I’m not a parent.

But the vital point is that groups like Family First do not want genuine constructive discussion about parenting, and physical discipline, and child development, and how the law sends signals about what is or isn’t socially acceptable. They just want to push a narrow-minded vision of what our society should look like. And if you aren’t the white, middle-class, patriarchal hetero monogamous Christian family unit they hold up as the ideal, they are not going to be here for you.

The disappointment is that their rhetoric gets taken at face value, and they have such a disproportionately loud voice in New Zealand politics. Because we cannot have serious conversations, about difficult topics, with them sitting at the table holding a megaphone to shout everyone else down.

On the M.O.U.

I’m a bit late to the party on the Labour/Greens M.O.U. but letting the dust clear a little before passing judgement is perhaps not such a bad thing.

The M.O.U. had to happen. And the sooner the better. Not because it means a lot in terms of the Green and Labour working more closely – they already were – but because that relationship is now publicly codified and it’s now very clear that there’s a forty-percent-plus block that balances out National’s vote.

Some in the commentariat have made a big deal about how this is Labour giving in.

It isn’t.

If anything it’s Labour getting stronger. It’s a given now that not only will Labour’s machine work to make Andrew Little the next Prime Minister, but the Greens’ machine will as well.

Effectively Little is now leading a voting block that is within striking distance of becoming Government.

And that’s something Winston Peters is now going to have to deal with.

Because despite the pundits claiming this makes Peters stronger, what it actually does is put him into a corner. When, for example, he dogwhistles against a minority such as Muslims, he’s whistling in the wind – because whatever argument he’s making goes nowhere if it’s not backed by either Labour/Greens or John Key’s National party.

A Labour party at 29% could feasibly kowtow to Peter’s cynicism (I don’t think they would, but desperation makes anything possible). But a Labour/Greens block at 43% doesn’t have the same pressure. When you represent nearly half of all New Zealanders it’s much easier to say no. And it carries a lot more weight.

That creates an uncomfortable situation for Key. The numbers are most likely going to mean a fourth term National Government will be a National/NZ First coalition – that’s received wisdom.

That means that if the Green/Labour block – particularly Andrew Little – knock back Peters’ headline grabbing, there’s going to be more and more pressure on Key to engage with it. That’s pressure Key doesn’t want or need – he’s busy enough trying to put some shine back on his ailing liberal brand without getting caught up in debates about Muslims, or Asians, or Māori or whatever drum Peters is banging for attention this week or next.

Now I know there’ll be some within Labour who are afraid of upsetting Peters by pushing back on him occasionally, but they need to get over themselves and start thinking like price makers instead of price takers. Headline-grabbing cynicism aside, New Zealand First’s policy platform aligns a lot more closely with Labour and the Greens’ platform than it does with National. And Peters is a professional – he’s been around and he’ll make the decision on who he goes with based on the numbers post 2017 and what leverage they give him to get what he wants.

Anyone who doubts that should remember that it was only a few years ago that John Key’s dirty politics team ran a rabid and personal attack campaign on Peters that saw him exit politics for a term. A campaign that presumably had the Nats’ sign off. Key’s people humiliated Peters yet Winston can’t and won’t rule out going with them – if he did he’d lose the illusory power he has.

Things have changed with the M.O.U. They’ve changed because Andrew Little has re-staked his claim as leader of the opposition and has brought together a power base that rivals the Prime Minister’s in terms of the number of New Zealanders it represents. Having watched Little throughout his time in the union movement and in politics, I’m expecting he’ll use that power well to create change – it’s something he’s always done.

What that all adds up to, despite what some pundits have claimed, is a harder time for Winston and bad news for Key.

Rob Egan is an ex-senior advisor to two Labour leaders and co-owner of public relations firm Piko Consulting.

Hekia Parata challenges the gender pay gap!

It’s great to see a senior Government Minister addressing serious issues of inequality and structural discrimination in one of our most important professions:

“I’m interested in how we attract the best and the brightest into teaching… I haven’t focussed very much on whether they’re men or whether they’re women but if it is a higher-paying profession, I think that will attract more men,” she said.

She’s got a really good point. Work which our society views as “women’s work” – usually involving caring for others, or children, or more “domestic” duties – is systemically underpaid compared to equivalently-skilled “men’s” work. Primary school teachers start on a whopping $46,000 after doing a three-year degree. Probationary police constables who have undergone 19 weeks’ paid training and need NCEA level 2 math and English get $58,584 more.

I’m not entirely comparing apples with apples there, nor am I saying that police officers don’t deserve to be paid well for doing a vitally important job (would be nice if their senior officers stopped mishandling sexual violence cases, but you know.) But Parata has a really important point: if teaching paid better, it would probably attract “the best and brightest”, and some of those would undoubtedly be men.

Wait … sorry, I’ve got it all wrong. Tracey Martin of NZ First informs me that Parata actually said,

“..if it is a higher-performing profession, I think that will attract more men,” she said.

Yes, the problem is actually that men’s standards are just too high. They want prestige and a sense of contributing meaningfully to their society, unlike women who clearly just want to go home at 3:30 and get really good holidays.

(I can feel every teacher in my family – and there are a few – glaring at me right now!)

If you all just bucked up, ladies, maybe the men would flock to get paid what I got as a receptionist in my first job out of uni. (Graduating in the middle of a recession is super fun.)

But that’s the National government for you, with its typical sneering attitude to teachers. Parata hasn’t quite met the standards set by predecessor Anne Tolley – who once read a children’s book about a rat who “learned to be happy with a lot less” to a meeting of secondary school teachers right before they entered collective bargaining – but I reckon she gets a gold star for effort.