Metiria Turei’s state of the nation

It’s state of the nation season, which as far as I can tell is a really recent development in NZ politics. It certainly doesn’t have a patch on the utterly theatrical production which takes place in the US every time this year.

The Greens were first off the block with Metiria Turei delivering the Green state of the nation yesterday. The full text of her speech is here, and the heart of it I think is this piece:

Imagine if the Government stopped seeing state homes, and the people who live in them as a burden, a problem better shifted out of sight so out of mind. Imagine if we had a Government instead that worked with the people that lived in those communities to design beautiful new homes and neighbourhoods that people actually want to live in. Michael Joseph Savage made that real once before. We see a future where all New Zealanders live in warm, dry affordable homes. Where children are no longer at risk of dying simply because of the home they live in.

The repeated nods to Michael Joseph Savage – especially right there in the very first English sentence – are always going to inspire a lefty like me.

What concerns me is the policy announcement which played the central role in the speech. I tweeted thus:

I want to like the idea of a policy costing unit. But we have to let go of the myth Treasury is an independent, non-ideological body. Look at the endless arguments about how we measure unemployment, poverty, economic growth. “Objective truth” doesn’t exist in politics.

I worry about the framing. Does this mean accepting that cost and “fiscal responsibility” are the most important measures of policy?

And ultimately does it matter? I know us pols nerds love our deep detailed analyses but do those ~average voters~ give a toss?

Or am I overthinking it? Is it a canny play to show the Greens are a party of integrity & thoughtfulness, as National would never go for it?

I really gotta finish reading [Anat Shenker-Osorio’s] “Don’t Buy It” and then review it for y’all. One of her key points when she was out here talking to the CTU is that “evidence” is incredibly useless in shifting political debates.

So that’s where my scepticism about a policy costings unit arises: I don’t see one more “independent” voice making a difference. We have all the evidence we could ask for about National’s economic mismanagement, over decades. But we still have a National government. People *just believe* National are better governers. They *just believe* Labour are useless, the Greens are hippies, & Winston is sensible. We cannot shake those beliefs by yelling “but have you looked at our spreadsheets???” at people.

We CAN provide counter-beliefs. And that’s why the Greens are going “look at our sensible, rational, fiscally-responsible approach.” It ain’t costed, it ain’t detailed, but every headline is going to say: the Greens care about independent cost-checking. That’s the win.

It’s hard to get into all this detail on Twitter, but we have a real problem in the progressive movement. We know our beliefs are objective and correct, and we’re convinced (just like everyone on the right) that we’ve formed these beliefs on the basis of evidence and rational consideration. Logically, presenting the evidence to other people will bring them to our side.

Unfortunately this is rubbish. Yet we insist on hammering people over the head with facts and evidence and write them off as “sleepy hobbits” or similar when they don’t react well to being lectured.

What this means – even if you could get half-a-dozen economists in a room who could actually agree on a simple numerical breakdown of policy cost, even if money were the only thing that matters in policy – is that a central policy costings unit would have zero real effect on political debate. And as long as we’re bringing “my facts are the best facts” to a “my leader is the coolest leader you’d have a beer with” fight, we’re going to lose.

Key’s state of the nation is today. I don’t expect much.

Andrew Little’s is on Sunday. What’s in it? Ideas I’ve heard (on Twitter/comments at The Standard) include a definitive statement about the TPPA, or a centrepiece policy for 2017 to inspire the troops. But I’ve no inkling myself!

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say once all is revealed.

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.