The coat-tail rule and democracy

Allow me to fly in the face of an accepted truth in NZ politics by saying this: there is absolutely nothing undemocratic about the MMP “coat-tail” rules.

This has quickly become the meme du jour around the Internet/Mana alliance (and I keep using the A-word very deliberately, because there’s an important precedent which people keep ignoring!) as propounded by Patrick Gower:

… Laila Harré is wrecking MMP.

Hone Harawira is wrecking MMP.

And Kim Dotcom is wrecking MMP.

They are using Harawira’s seat and MMP’s “coat-tail” rule to get a back-door entry into Parliament.

It is a rort.

It is a grubby deal, made all the worse by the fact Harawira holds the Te Tai Tokerau seat – a Maori seat.

As both mickysavage at The Standard and Danyl at Dim-Post have noted, there’s a funny little irony here: National had the opportunity to reform MMP, but they didn’t – because, we can probably assume, they thought they’d be hurting their own chances by doing so. (And they thought ACT would be able to lift its polling numbers.) Now, their failure to act is biting them on the arse.

But there’s another point – a point I can make by strategically editing an anonymous Stuff editorialist writing on the coat-tail rule:

A weakness of the mixed-member proportional system [is that it] … allows a party … to gain seats according to the proportion of the party vote.

Hang on a tick. It’s a weakness of MMP that parties gain seats proportional to their share of the party vote? Isn’t that how MMP is meant to work?

I agree, there is unfairness in MMP, but it’s not the “coat-tailing” – it’s the plight of parties which don’t win electorate seats.

Take New Zealand First. In 1999, they received 4.26% of the vote – not enough to cross the threshold, but because Winston held Tauranga, they gained 5 seats. But in 2008, they received 4.07% of the vote and didn’t hold Tauranga – so they were out.

The real irony? Due to the increase in overall voters, New Zealand First actually received nearly 7,500 more votes in 2008 than 1999. Nearly 100,000 Kiwis’ votes were rendered void in 2008, because there was no seat to coat-tail on to.

87,000 votes got you 5 seats in 1999. 95,000 votes got you no seats in 2008. Is that fair?

Say what you like about Winston Peters and New Zealand First – but I think that kind of situation “wrecks MMP” far more than a couple of parties coming to a mutual agreement about working together to ensure their constituents have the best possible chance of being represented – fairly and proportionally – in Parliament.

Considering newborns

I’ve blogged before about some of the issues with our social welfare system which have been getting attention, thanks to great people like Sarah Wilson at Writehanded.

Labour and the Greens have been fighting these fights too – though this being an election year, they’re getting even less traction than they normally would. Unfortunately, our only hope of a real change in the way the state treats beneficiaries depends on a strong progressive turnout at the election in September.

Take this revelation from the Greens: after hammering the Prime Minister in the House about the lack of support for newborn babies – if their parents are silly enough to be on a benefit in a time of 6% unemployment, that is – they found a directive had been issued to MSD ordering its Chief Executive (and thus its staff) to “consider” whether a person had a newborn when applying for hardship assistance.

It’s a classic National manoeuvre. Ask them a straightforward question like “is there support for all newborn babies in New Zealand?” and get a straightforward “Yes” – with several significant caveats that altogether add up to No.

The obvious point: having your child’s needs “considered” when you’re applying for additional assistance is a very long way from the straight-up cash-in-hand parental tax credit everyone else gets. It’s a maybe. It’s just part of another process which has nothing specifically to do with supporting children.

But more insidiously, I think you can make the case that telling WINZ staff to “consider” newborn babies’ needs makes things even worse.

No social security net worthy of the label should have to have it spelled out that newborn babies create extra stress and greater need for families who are already struggling. Even in the purest, most generous of systems, supporting newborn babies and their families isn’t an optional thing.

And we know very well – because everyone seems to know someone who’s got a terrible WINZ story or two – that our system is far from pure and generous.

This is a callous box-ticking exercise by a government which really, really does not seem to care if you’re struggling to feed your children. I just hope that people will start to see that those in our communities who are on benefits deserve every bit of support we can give them.

And even if we can’t shake off all the myths and misconceptions and prejudices, at least we can say that babies deserve a decent start in life, however poorly we think of their parents.

Internet Mana: the sell-out and the reaction

A common response I saw to the Mana/Internet alliance today was, “Oh great, Mana’s sold out. Mana’s meant to be grassroots! Mana and the Internet Party have nothing in common!”

The thing is, it largely (not entirely) came from people who aren’t Mana members or supporters. It came from Labour supporters.

So my initial reaction was to say “Maybe Labour members shouldn’t crow too loudly about the idea of a party moderating its views in order to get broader mainstream appeal. Maybe, if you really love Mana’s kaupapa/ideology/vision/tactics that much, you should put a ring on it. I mean, join it.”

It wasn’t a particularly nice thought, but I was saved from tweeting it by character limits – probably for the best, because this kind of snark goes over much better in the longform.

The thing is, it does feel like there are some on the left who approved of Mana’s out-there down-and-dirty politics … in a very condescending way. An “isn’t it cute? They organise people living in state houses to go on marches and wave little flags, just like real revolutionaries!” way. An, “of course they’ll never win anything because they’re too scary and loud (and unashamedly brown) but wouldn’t it be great if we could all be ideologically pure like them? Bless” way.

I think Mana is seen by some in Labour as admirably extreme: but oh, they’re just not our kind of political ally. Obviously it would be delightful if they managed to pull 3-4% and bring in some definitely-not-going-into-coalition-with-National MPs, but until then we’d really rather they use the servants’ entrance while we do the grown-up politics thing.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing bad about wanting to work within a larger party like Labour to pull it back to its social justice roots (hi, I’m Stephanie and I’m a Labour Party member) and appreciate having a more radical minor party in the picture to shift the discourse (I refuse to say “Overton Window” because it’s terribly wanky and also the name of a Glenn Beck novel).

But if you are a member of that larger party, you just shouldn’t be too quick to scream “SELLOUT!!!” at the first sign of an unusual, untested, practically unique allegiance of two parties with very distinct, pretty well-defined interests and approaches. (Approaches which I don’t think are mutually exclusive, but that’s a post for another day).

Especially before we even know who the Internet Party leader will be, or what the joint policy platform looks like.

There are many valid criticisms of Kim Dotcom – my most generous assessment is that he’s like any number of self-centered socially-awkward politically-adrift nerds I’ve known, only with a big pile of cash, which doesn’t tend to prompt a lot of self-reflection and moderation. And there is still every chance that this alliance spells the end of Mana as the kind of radical force people both inside and outside wanted or expected it to be.

We’ve already seen resignations from Mana, so clearly some in the party aren’t happy, and that could lead to a loss of members or a Labour-style internal power shift if the process for deciding on the alliance is seen as unfair or undemocratic.

All I’m saying is that it’s probably too early for any outsider to start making grandiose declarations about another party’s kaupapa.

What Maurice Williamson’s shock tells us about domestic violence

In defending himself against allegations of misusing ministerial authority, Maurice Williamson said of the domestic violence charges against Donghua Liu:

He had been “shocked” at the charges because Liu had required a clean record to get a New Zealand visa.

The logic is this: Liu needed a clean record to get a visa, Liu had a clean record ergo Liu couldn’t be the kind of person who commits violent acts against the women in his family. But the logic isn’t built on good foundations.

To get the basic poor assumption out of the way first, a clean record tells you only one thing: that a person has a clean record. It indicates a certain comparative level of lawfulness, but it’s not definitive proof that a person has always been law-abiding or well-behaved.

The more insidious assumption is this: that you can just tell if a person is violent or abusive by looking at them, their police record, and the size of their investment in New Zealand.

Domestic or intimate partner violence is a huge problem which is consistently under-reported or not treated seriously by law enforcement (especially if the accused abuser is rich or famous).

Even when it’s unavoidably brought to public attention, no excuse is too outrageous. Remember Charles Saatchi arguing that choking Nigella Lawson in a restaurant was just a ‘playful tiff’?

What we see in Maurice Williamson’s shock, and his subsequent behaviour, is a the reality of our general attitudes to domestic violence. Like the idea that domestic violence cases aren’t clear-cut crimes the way burglary or murder is. Or that a wealthy person with a clean record should get a stronger presumption of innocence, unlike the great unwashed.

In the meantime, the PSA have released more research into the impacts of domestic violence on workplaces:

Over half of the more than 1600 Public Service Association union members surveyed reported some experience with domestic violence, and 26 per cent had direct experience of family violence.

… PSA national secretary Brenda Pilott … had heard of a case where a government department was reluctant to give an employee time off work to attend a family court hearing about the welfare of her children.

When a senior government minister like Maurice Williamson thinks it’s appropriate to act the way he has, we can’t be surprised that domestic violence is a widespread, under-appreciated problem in New Zealand.

Todd Barclay’s real problem: naïveté

There are those – like today’s editorial writer at the Dominion Post – who think that working for the tobacco industry at all is indefensible, and pretty much rules you out of seeking public office.

But I think Todd Barclay, and his political patrons, have committed a far worse crime: being a bit bloody naïve about how his professional background was going to play.

It doesn’t involve any specialist PR knowledge to figure out that a young man whose CV contains the words “Phillip Morris” is going to be criticised, if not downright attacked, for working for an industry which is generally perceived as having caused, and tried to cover up, the deaths of millions of its customers.

The obvious answer was to play by the Steven Joyce/Judith Collins rules and come out swinging. Take a leaf from the (first half) of Thank You For Smoking. Tobacco is a legal product! The industry has worked hard to ensure users are aware of the risks, but what about freedom of choice, eh? Todd Barclay has proven experience in a multinational industry! He doesn’t do things because they’re popular, he does them because he believes in freedom of speech. Every company has a right to representation!

And throw in some snide digs at the fun-hating Green Party. Try to paint Labour as hypocrites. Declare that your enemies are just jealous that they don’t have a bevy of young up-and-comers to refresh the ranks.

It’s not perfect. It’s an argument better-suited to an ACT party candidate. And it isn’t particularly believable. But it isn’t meant to be. Once you’ve worked for Big Tobacco you’re always going to wear nicotine stains.

And it probably wouldn’t have been too clever to trumpet such a philosophy while the country’s in the midst of a panic about legal highs.

But overriding all that, in the interests of Todd Barclay’s street cred, it also wouldn’t have looked so utterly out-of-touch.

Instead of being a Gerry Brownlee-esque “I make the hard decisions and won’t apologise for it, you simpering leftie schmucks” figure, Todd Barclay has let himself be painted as a vacuous, uncertain empty shirt from day one. He’s taken the John Key approach – make hand-wavey feel-good statements and hope no one pays close attention to the disaster capitalism behind the curtain –without Key’s unnerving middle-New-Zealand appeal.

There was never going to be any getting around the fact Todd Barclay is a tobacco man. National’s options were to rule him out as a candidate; figure out how to make his weakness a strength, at least so the voters of Southland can convince themselves their votes aren’t being taken for granted; or look like utter numpties who can’t predict a story and can’t manage bad news.

Given their history in government, it’s baffling that they went with Option 3.