Whoever wins, National is going conservative

Claire Trevett at the Herald has a piece up examining the five National Party leadership candidates’ views and voting records on various social issues. It’s interesting reading. And the conclusion I draw is that whoever’s on top when the dust settles will take the party screaming back into good old-fashioned conservatism.

To summarise:

Adams: anti-general decrim of marijuana; supported first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill; voted for drinking age of 20

Bridges: anti-decrim of marijuana; voted against marriage equality; opposed first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill

Collins: opposed first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill; voted for drinking age of 20

Joyce: anti-decrim of marijuana; opposed first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill; supported drinking age of 18

Mitchell: voted against marriage equality; supported first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill

Trevett notes that Mark Mitchell “in hindsight … would now support [marriage equality].” This should be a black mark against him whether you agree or disagree. It’s impossible to put trust in politicians who pander to reactionaries when it actually matters, but turn around later and insist “I would totally vote for equality and basic human rights now, if I had the chance.” There’s no high democratic principle in place: it’s an overriding instinct to cover your ass and please whoever you’re currently talking to. (God, he’s sounding more and more plausible as “New Zealand’s Trump” every day.)

All five candidates are against abortion law reform, even though Simon Bridges’ favourite Bill Clinton quote specifies abortion should be safe, rare and legal. (Abortion is still covered by the Crimes Act in New Zealand, Simon, and its safety is reduced by the bureaucratic hoops pregnant people have to jump through, delaying their access to safer procedures. Something to think about?)

Family First’s ever-ironically helpful Vote Your Values website also has a guide to the contenders. Judith Collins … certainly has a voting record.

The others are more of a mixed bag, and it might seem premature to assume that all five would drag the party back into the dark ages. John Key’s own voting record was hardly a clean sweep of decency and compassion. But the thing about Key was not that he was tremendously socially liberal, nor conservative: he was simply pragmatic. He let the dice fall where they may, and when he did look like being on the wrong side of history, he had an incredibly slick media strategy and no compunction about rewriting that history to make himself the hero.

It worked for him. It did not work for English. It is not going to work for self-proclaimed scrappers like Collins or Joyce. Bridges doesn’t have the panache to carry it off (his infamous Campbell Live interview shows what happens when he’s not given the easy ride he thinks he’s due.)

Nobody except Simon Lusk wants to have a beer with Mark Mitchell, and although Amy Adams comes to many voters as a relative unknown, that’s really a weakness when you’ve been in Parliament for nearly a decade and a Minister for two-thirds of that time. (Nanaia Mahuta took this criticism a lot in the 2014 Labour leadership election, albeit mostly from Pākehā who never pay attention.)

So the best-case scenario is National gets a new leader who can’t/won’t articulate a strong position on social issues, either to conservatism or liberalism, and who lacks Key’s ability to make that work. And we know that more conservative, religious candidates started to come up through the National ranks the minute Bill English became leader. Is there a big chunk of socially judgey National supporters, who were simply biding their time while things were going well under Key, now ready to push the party back towards its “real” values? Buggered if I know. But if there is, are any of the leadership contenders willing to take those guys on and keep them mum until the party can Labour Lite its way back into the Beehive? Mitchell will fold. Bridges and Adams will weasel. And Joyce, of course, stands on a strong record of fixing things.

The worst-case scenario is National gets a leader who can articulate a strong social position, and it’s Judith Collins and her position is strongly terrifying.

And the real winner may be David Seymour. More than anything he and his funders are capable of doing, National swerving into the judgemental daddy-state ditch could deliver a lot of “fiscally conservative but socially liberal” votes back to the yellow clown car.

Labour could benefit too: but it’s going to take more than sitting back and reaching for the popcorn. They have to seize the opportunity to drive one hell of a wedge between National’s new conservatism and the progressive values most New Zealanders hold. That means being active and unapologetic on drug and abortion law reform, and unequivocally rejecting the kneejerk law-and-order frame.

I hope they can do this.

So long and thanks for all the defishits

I’ve been a bit distracted over the past week setting up a wee side project* but what do you know, the omens were right: comfortably within the two-week period after fronting the media to say that any talk of a leadership change was rubbish, a major political party is changing leaders.

I’m just so bloody glad it’s not Labour this time.

Nobody would believe for a second that I have any kind of inside knowledge on the factions and agendas of the blue team, and I just don’t have the sheer gall of a Matthew Hooton to make things up and count it a success if people squawk at it. So what to say?

There’s been an upsurge in mischievous #crushingforCollins tweets from the left, and a huge amount of tea-leaf reading and bold predictions from the press gallery, who know that being the person to call the result early means bragging rights for life, while being one of the many calling it wrong will vanish like tears in the rain.  The broad consensus puts Collins, Bridges and Kaye at the top of the list – the arguments for each, respectively, “because nothing can stop her”, “because he’s comparatively fresh-faced but experienced” and “because she kind of fits the Jacinda mould”.

But who knows? And does it matter? The National Party, despite holding on to their polling numbers for the time being, don’t seem to know what to do with themselves. Since Key stepped down at the end of 2016, they’ve been in a holding pattern in terms of strategy, and entirely failed to re-jig their campaign to account for having a very different leader at the helm. And none of the possible contenders – not even the outside bets – seem to have Key’s sorcerous mix of affability, Teflon coating and unthreatening blandness. Certainly not Collins. Certainly not Bridges:

Ultimately, it’s the Catholics I feel sorry for. When Bill became Prime Minister for a  blessed few months, there was a sudden flurry of activity from the marriage-is-sacred, pregnancy-a-duty corner of the National Party – a corner which has seriously kept to itself for the past decade. They clearly saw their moment, nominating candidates in very safe seats, like Simeon Brown, former President of the student group ProLife Auckland, in Pakuranga and Chris Penk – who believes “a baby should have as many human rights inside the womb as it did outside of it” – in Key’s old stomping ground of Helensville.

But Bill was their only shot. As far as I know – and like I said, I’m no expert on the internal workings of the National Party – none of the genuine contenders for the leadership come from that side of the altar. They might placate them by promising not to advance abortion law reform or to repeal assisted suicide, should Seymour’s bill go through, but that’s never enough for extremist religious types. For a brief glimmering moment, they might have thought they were going to get genuine conservative change. And it’s gone. And all they have left is a party possibly on the brink of schism (which wouldn’t be the worst idea, electorally speaking) and a pregnant 37-year-old socialist* in the Beehive.

Poor things.

But what to say of Bill, now he’s off? The Prime Minister and others have made the usual polite noises about “his service” and the deep mutual respect all politicians theoretically have even for those on the other side of the spectrum. The meme has always been that he was a fantastic Minister of Finance (they all have to be, after Rob Muldoon) and he kept the country running (because we kid ourselves that “the economy” is a fickle and temperamental demigod who must be bound from doing harm by arcane ritual, published in bright blue covers and distributed to the priesthood during the sacred time of “the Budget lock-in”).

I say: this is a man who, despite professing a deep spiritual faith in a saviour whose paramount message was of love, compassion and mutual care, spent decades hammering the message that only money mattered. That the only measure of success and health for our country was balancing the books and making the numbers come out right at the end. And he couldn’t even do that. He failed by his own calculating, cold-hearted metrics, and did immense damage to the people of this country in the process.

Jog on, Bill.

~

*I just launched a YouTube channel for snarky reviews of romance novels. If that sounds like your kind of thing, head on over to Op Shop Romance.

Labour’s first 100 days

Labour’s ticked-off 100 Day Plan

Labour’s come under some fire as its (drumroll please) First One Hundred Days In Office has ticked over.

[The email from Labour] talked about how it had done what it had promised to do. It used words like “delivered”, “achieved” and “commitment”.

That’s called spin. It has massaged the truth. Massaged its promises. Embellished what has really happened in 100 days.

And that annoys me. Not just from a journalistic point of view, but because this Labour-led Government has promised to be open, honest and transparent.

I struggle with this too. I wanted a new government that would shake things up, kick ass, deliver all the goods. It’s frustrating to see “we’ve started this process” “we’ve initiated this review” “we’re looking into this issue” over and over. Just bloody do it, can’t you?

But I remind myself that it’s a start. There’s a hell of a lot to do, and it has to begin somewhere.

We’re stuck in short-term thinking. Remember how every year in the Budget, National would promise tens of thousands of jobs were just around the corner, or The Glorious Surplus was nearly here, and never mind that those promises had been broken time and again in the past or that inequality kept growing (or that the whole idea of a government budget surplus is a fairy tale)?

The Opposition bought into it too, and focused on the battles of the day over the ongoing struggle. We all mocked National for pushing back its promises to raise the superannuation age or make rivers swimmable (for a given value of swimmable), because we knew they were completely insincere; but I worry we unwittingly reinforced the idea that longterm goals themselves are pointless.

The problem isn’t having a list of things you want to do the minute you get into office. In actual democracies you just can’t do a lot the minute you get into office. Jacinda Ardern doesn’t have the executive power to simply dictate benefit rates or carbon emission targets or overhauling fiscal policy. This is a feature, not a bug.

Lloyd Burr’s right. The “first 100 days” deadline is a charade. It’s not one of Labour’s making. Over time, every politician’s picked it up (from the US, where all bad political ideas seem to originate) as a way of saying “I’m really, really serious about this” – not just “first term” serious, proper serious. And it handily gives journalists something to cover over the dullest period in New Zealand politics: the time between an election and Waitangi Day.

The problem is Labour hasn’t told this story well. It does come across as a little taking-the-piss to declare “we’ve done everything we promised!” when (a) you haven’t, and (b) you wouldn’t have been able to anyway.

The story should be: “we’ve made an amazing start. We’ve kicked off a huge amount of important work, and here’s some concrete things we’ve already achieved (pets for state housing tenants, first year of tertiary education free). We couldn’t do everything we promised, because this is MMP – and the strength of MMP is every party in government gets to contribute to the decision-making process. But look at all this! It’s going to deliver amazing results, and it’s creating the foundations for even more good stuff, because fixing inequality and injustice and making New Zealand the country we all want it to be is a big job.”

Labour has to be laying the groundwork now for the next three years and an even better result in 2020 (and beyond). That means emphasising the strengths of MMP – a range of voices get to be at the table deciding what happens. Emphasising the principles which underpin everything Labour does – making the case that good government means intervening, rebalancing the scales, ensuring everyone has a decent life.

That in turn shows consistency, so everyone who’s stuck on Labour as the scattershot party of disunity begins to see their integrity and reliability; and that relentless positivity, by establishing there’s more to their policies than just reversing the last two or three years’ worth of National Party bullshit: there’s an idea of what New Zealand should be and it’s one that everyone can be part of.

It seems like a lot of strategic importance to place on one mass email and a couple of Facebook graphics, but it’s crucial. If there isn’t one story, one strategy, one plan to build a coherent, powerful narrative about what Labour is doing and why, they risk achieving a lot of good without ever making people see that it’s by design; it’s not just stuff any government could have done.

Will voters understand that this good could only be achieved by a Labour-led government, because Labour is a party that stands for justice, equality and openness? Does that even matter, if the good is achieved anyway?

I guess that depends on whether you want voters to think, “Yes, yes, that’s nice. But I like that Simon Bridges, he looks like someone you’d have a beer with. Did you see him have a go at John Campbell that time? What a rascal!”

Marama Davidson’s campaign launch

I was beyond excited to see Marama Davidson stand up to announce her bid for the co-leadership of the Greens.

I’ve been a Marama fan for an age, so I was very biased in her favour. But reading her speech from today’s launch in Ōtara just reinforced it.

Together, we can build a country that ensures everyone has what they need to live good lives, and that recognises that a healthy environment is crucial to that.

Together, we can change politics forever.

Together, we are many.

New Zealanders want their Government to reflect our values of care and compassion for communities and the environment.

Because progressive values, Green values, are New Zealand values.

It’s not just powerful, it’s incredibly effective.

There are three fundamentals for modern progressive communications (which I’ve shamelessly stolen from Anat Shenker-Osorio’s website):

  • Don’t take the temperature, change it
  • Stop feeding the opposition; show what you stand for
  • Engage the base to persuade the middle

As to the first: we aren’t thermometers. We can’t be content to reflect where people are. We have to be thermostats, pushing the political temperature in the right direction. And Marama Davidson is doing that just by being who she is: a Māori woman, a mother of six, launching a political campaign at the leisure centre in Ōtara where she learned to swim as a kid.

(Jacinda Ardern has also been doing this, by taking a drastically different approach to Waitangi and defying the standard frame of “one day of tension and shouting which doesn’t ~bring the country together~”.)

But it’s further reinforced in a speech which does not make a single mention of economic growth (she does cite the “steady economic development” of her grandparents’ day) or business but uses the word “communities” 20 times. This will be decried by the Kiwiblogs and Whaleoils of the world as demonstrating her inability to be part of a proper government.

Good.

The second point: we can’t just be a resistance. A resistance is defined by what it resists. There has to be more to progressive politics than hating everything National did for the past nine years. I really hate the word vision (thanks, David Shearer), but it kind of applies: you need something to aim for. To build a better world, you’ve got to know what that better world looks like, otherwise how do you know you’re going in the right direction?

This is Marama Davidson’s vison:

Aotearoa can again be a country of care and compassion and a world leader through the greatest challenges of our time.

A country where all children grow up in healthy, liveable cities, are able to play in their local stream and forest, and have the support and opportunities to realise their full potential.

And a country that recognises that upholding Te Tiriti o Waitangi as our founding document is essential in achieving this.

The third point is something both Labour and the Greens have been … not brilliant at over recent years. Instead of getting the hardcore fans excited, appreciating their role as communicators and agitators in their own communities, parties have taken them for granted. They’ve assumed the way to bring in people from outside was, variously, “say what the mainstream media wants to hear”, “try to look like National”, “tell people who hate us that we’re not that scary” and per point 2: “reinforce the right’s framing and priorities”.

The result … well, 44% of the country still voted National last election.

While it’s easy to write off Davidson’s approach as pandering to the fans (which wouldn’t exactly be a bad idea since they’re the ones voting for her) it’s important to understand how staunchly declaring Green Party values and the need for a fundamental shift in New Zealand politics and society will energise those fans, and make them feel there’s a real result from donating, volunteering, spreading the Green message.

Besides those three key points – and getting those right would have been entirely sufficient for me – there’s a few other things. Stuff you may have noticed me go on and on and on about, which progressive politicians just have to stop doing if they really want to achieve change.

  • Parrotting “my values are New Zealand values” without explaining what those values are
  • Using passive language instead of naming the villains
  • Using language that reinforces rightwing ideology.

Marama Davidson nails every single one of these. Her values are “care and compassion for communities and the environment”, working together (a prominent theme). The villains are “our elected representatives” who “tore apart the social safety net”.

That last point, that’s where I turn into the eyes-for-hearts emoji. One of my most-read posts last year was about how we (should) talk about child poverty: not as a passive force, but a created injustice. Well:

We could have chosen to pull communities in to our growing financial prosperity. But instead we further alienated struggling families and pushed them to the margins of our society.

Instead our elected representatives tore apart the social safety net we had built up over generations, pushing hundreds of thousands of children and families into hardship and deprivation.

Not “young people from vulnerable communities fell through the cracks”: “we built barriers for youth who simply were not born in to wealth”. Not “families ended up on the streets”: “we took families out of State houses that we sold to rich developers.”

We did this. We can fix it. Political messaging doesn’t get much clearer or paradigm-shifting than that.

Tinkering and half-measures will not be enough. Now is the time to be bold and brave for those who need us most.

Has Labour kept its promise on the TPPA?

There’s a question I haven’t seen answered in the most recent coverage of the abysmally-renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership: how does it line up with the five principles then-Labour leader Andrew Little announced in July 2015?

– Pharmac must be protected
– Corporations cannot successfully sue the Government for regulating in the public interest
– New Zealand maintains the right to restrict sales of farm land and housing to non-resident foreign buyers
– The Treaty of Waitangi must be upheld
– Meaningful gains are made for our farmers in tariff reductions and market access.

(Are we even allowed to know? Wasn’t the TPPA’s secrecy another major sticking point for a lot of people?)

Professor Jane Kelsey suggests that, besides a token attempt to address the issue of investor/state disputes, we’ve achieved none of those points. The best that free trade fanboy Stephen Jacobi can say today is:

“I wouldn’t expect the dairy farmer to be jumping all over the place, but it’s better than it would have been otherwise.”

… which could be interpreted as “meaningful gains are made for our farmers” if one were feeling extremely generous. One is not.

On the Pharmac issue – maybe? Those of us who aren’t Stephen Jacobi are still having to read between the lines here – Stuff reports:

Fully 22 provisions of the original TPP agreement have been suspended, up from 20 frozen in November last year. These provisions include controversial pharmaceutical changes and would only be reactivated after renegotiations and if the United States re-entered the pact.

Does that mean Pharmac is protected … until the US enters the deal? If we sign this and a new President comes along in 2020 and says “Yup, we’re in” do we even get to discuss what happens, or is it gone by lunchtime?

Tens of thousands of people marched against the TPPA, and expected Labour, especially Labour-in-government-with-the-Greens-and-New-Zealand-First, to actually be different to the last lot. But I don’t know if Labour really understood this. If you go back to the July announcement, Labour declared:

Labour will carefully consider the impact of the draft TPP agreement on New Zealand’s interests, and we will not support the TPP unless it protects New Zealand’s sovereignty and is in the best interests of New Zealanders.

… in the last paragraph. The first four words of the announcement, though, are:

Labour supports free trade.

So it has been: at every opportunity, as New Zealanders protested and organised and challenged the very idea that “free trade” is good for all of us, you couldn’t get a statement out of a Labour spokesperson which didn’t begin with, “Well of course Labour has always supported free trade agreements, however.”

Labour has been unable to detach itself from the idea that trade agreements are Good Proper Governance. They’re what you do when you’re in power, and while of course there are some domestic issues to work through like basic human rights and the ongoing legacy of unilaterally self-immolating our manufacturing sector, y’know, Trade Agreements Are Good. They must be, or we wouldn’t keep signing up to them, and those nice men in suits from the big banks and think-tanks wouldn’t keep saying how great they are.

Even when New Zealanders took to the streets saying, this secrecy is undemocratic. This provision for companies to sue our government over lost profits is obscene. Pharmac is too precious to give up for undefined economic gain, Labour dithered, giving Phil Goff leave to cross the floor over it and looking not entirely cohesive when David Shearer wanted to do the same.

I don’t think Labour have ever understood that those specific complaints (which they haven’t actually fixed!) about a specific agreement weren’t the whole of the argument. That people weren’t blockading motorways just because of one particular instance of investor/state dispute resolution clauses.

The world is changing. More and more people are starting to think, maybe “free trade agreements” aren’t the universal good they’ve been sold as. Reconsidering what “free trade” means: who gets to be “free”? Free from what – job security? Affordable housing and healthcare? The power of their own elected governments to pass legislation for the public good? Things that matter more than profit margins?

And maybe, after thirty years of this being the status quo, we’re ready for an alternative. A genuine change in direction. We see a new government formed of parties who (more or less) said that the TPPA was not OK, who promised a new way of doing things. It’s the old organising model of Anger, Hope, Action. People are angry. Jacinda Ardern gave them hope. Action?

Apparently not. And I don’t know how thrilled people are going to be about that – or the government’s message that actually they should be happy because that’s the way the world works.

I could be wrong. It could be as my comrade Giovanni suggested:

Maybe they won’t face a backlash over this. But either way, this will be a massive lost opportunity for Labour. And I worry it won’t be the last.