Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Clintonistas' Allegation That Trump Is Putin Finger Puppet Is Classic Dead Cat McCarthyist Dirty Politics

In politics these days, everything is professionalized. Messages are crafted by hired-gun spindoctors rather than party true-believer apparatchiks at bar-room brainstorming sessions. Internal offices of some standing are increasingly filled by folks remunerated for their services instead of pure unprofessional volunteers. In fact, in these tumultuous times even the absolute donkey-mule grunt-work of responding to and engaging with people on social media can be farmed out to bought-and-paid-for staffers.

This last point has been a particularly big (and understandably contentious) part of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, and is worth mentioning in light of the recent deluge of comments appearing on articles covering the 20,000 DNC internal emails recently published by Wikileaks.

The basic gist of these comments runs along the lines of demanding to know why people aren't questioning the source of the hacked emails, and then sketching out some cockamamie conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is a foreign finger-puppet of the great Vladimir Putin.

This line has also been picked up by a number of mainstream media outlets, and the Clinton campaign's evident fall-back line that its present challenges are largely the result of offshore interference would appear to be swiftly gaining ground.

Now on the face of it, the question as to precisely who hacked the DNC and decided to make the Democrats' own anti-democratic internal machinations public is decidedly secondary to the fact that the material thusly exposed appears to be factual. Nobody but the most ardent Clintonista appears to be arguing that the DNC has behaved with full propriety when it came to overseeing the Democrats' presidential primary contest; and the official apology from key DNC personnel as well as the Head On A Platter of former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz go a certain distance towards establishing a transparent 'mea culpa' for the organization.

But this attempted re-direct of attention by Clinton supporters from what has actually happened (the DNC being caught out attempting to rig internal processes to favour the Establishment-Insider candidate) through to some cursory elements as to why it might have happened and completely hyperbolic speculation as to the wider geopolitical implications of the event (Russian intelligence service involvement, and Trump apparently being a Manchurian Candidate by way of Moscow, respectively) ... is simply breathtaking.

Perhaps it is an instance of Crosby-Textor's favoured electoral stratagem - the Dead Cat effect. A large and flagrant accusation like the circulating and percolating questions as to Trump's alleged international allegiances does certainly help to distract people from asking the serious question as to what extent the Clinton campaign was actively complicit with the DNC's evident conspiracy against Sanders.

It may also be an example of a sort of latter-day McCarthyism in American politics. Communism may have fallen more than two and a half decades ago, but Russia remains a big scary international boogeyman in the eyes and minds of many American voters. Presumably, particularly those in the Heartland and more overtly patriotic demographics to which Trump's message is otherwise especially appealing. How better to attempt to 'wedge politics' these people away from their putative political messiah than by insisting that he is naught but merely a bought-and-paid-for agent of America's prime international antagonist, the Great Russian Bear.

The broader import of the allegations against Trump is clear, then. Having concluded that they face an uphill battle to be sure of victory in November, the Clinton campaign (or some parts thereof) has decided it must fight dirty - and smear and besmirch Trump via association with an offshore undesirable rather than continuing to attempt to debate him on the issues.

There is also another limb to this. One of the clear areas upon which Clinton has a weakness to Trump is in the field of foreign policy. Nobody doubts Clinton's formidableness on the international stage - but her demonstrable record in this area on everything from voting for the Iraq War through to the more recent flurry of messy (attempted) regime overthrows (and, for that matter, the negotiation of the TPPA) as Secretary of State is that of an avowed Hawk. See, for example, her comments here about the desirability of the US working to fuel continual unrest, instability and armed conflict in Syria in order to advance Israeli interests. Or the earlier, much-cited lines about America going to war with Iran if she were President. And while it would be lovely to write all of this substantial weight of evidence off as prior mistakes which she's learned from and repudiated, it would sadly appear that this is not the case. Whether present, future or historic - Clinton is inarguably to the Interventionist, Neocon Right of even a large swathe of the Republican Party. No wonder godfathers of the Neocon movement like Bill Kristol are endorsing her.

Juxtaposed against this frightening background, the Trump campaign's emphasis of isolationism and non-interventionism sounds not just comparatively rational, but outright desirable. Particularly to the large numbers of war-weary Americans who are justifiably miffed that their country can apparently spend billions prosecuting imperialistic adventures overseas - yet can't seem to find the spare change to make meaningful improvements to infrastructure or educational and healthcare spending in their own country.

But one of the key arts of politics is to be able to master a technique fairly common in Judo - the 'throw', wherein an opponent's salience and momentum is turned against them via a skillful pivot which renders their previous strong-point a weakness.

The Clinton campaign's assertions that Trump is an avowed agent of the Russians are a masterful example of exactly that.

Suddenly, it casts Trump's position in a different light. Instead of being a principled and integral stance, it becomes a deliberate Russian ploy to give themselves undisputed and unchallenged mastery of the world stage.

Note that this is not what I believe Trump's foreign policy is actually motivated by - but it is difficult to deny the rhetorical and narrative logic which Conservative and Clintonite talking heads will be able to bring to bear in arguing exactly this in front of the electorate.

But knowledge of Clinton's woeful record is spreading, and it is questionable whether the spin line of posing Donald Trump as a Putin finger-puppet will be enough to offset the obvious and tumultuous detrimental impact upon Clinton's Campaign which the Wikileaks disclosure will almost certainly have.

In any case, the Clintonista assertion that Trump is unelectable due to this unproven Putin allegation seems laughable.

As one of my associates put it:

"How dare Putin think he can meddle in the internal politics of a foreign country! Who does he think he is?! Hillary Clinton?!"

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Why Trump's Vice Presidential Pick Is A Missed Opportunity - Hint: It's Not Just The Logo

The game of vice presidential candidate selection in American Politics is among the single most complex-yet-simple parts of the four yearly quasi-armed-madhouse they call their Presidential election cycle.

Simple, because in effect you're only picking one person who most likely won't actually have to do anything public except the occasional photo-op and feel-good journey if you win.

Unbearably complex because there are so many different considerations which have to go into that selection.

The traditional school of thought with regard to VP selections is that a Presidential candidate ought to go for someone who complements them by absolving their weaknesses somewhat in the eyes of the electorate. Urban(e) quasi-liberals go for more heart-land friendly folks with a more Conservative appeal (think FDR & Truman). Northerners go for Southerners (ala Kennedy and LBJ). Sane, rational people go for frothing at the mouth lunatics (remember John McCain & Sarah Palin?).

In all cases, the perceived shortcomings of one's Presidential standard-bearer are supposed to be abrogated by injecting into their side-car a figure who can energize the 'right' portion of a given electoral base whom the main candidate would otherwise have difficulty reaching.

At their best, such pairings represent a 'dynamic duo' - a confederation of individuals who are able to transmit and transport the same overarching message to diversely different groups and carry the day. Quality VP candidates also provide a strong degree of 'reassurance' about a ticket that not only will a respected voice for the marginalized group's concerns exist at the heart of the impending administration ... but that in the exceedingly unfortunate event of Presidential incompetence or incapacitation, there'll be someone competent to take over.

But unfortunately, such impressive combinations rarely wind up taking to the field. Whether due to the ineluctable combinations of interior party machinations or risk-aversion on the part of Candidates which leads to sloppy or inadequate options being pursued, the field of Presidential-Vice Presidential team-ups is littered with joint-ticket candidacies that were decidedly not all they could truly be.

Just take John McCain in 2008, for instance. We've already mentioned the absolutely disastrous decision to go for Sarah Palin; and it's not hard to see why somebody both backed into a corner (remember, '08 was the heyday of the 'Tea Party' movement) and over-eager to 'soften' a perceived 'reasonable' image to right wing-nut voters who've come to increasingly form the Republican Party's electoral base could have made such a catastrophic miscalculation.

Instead of complimenting McCain's strengths and covering his weaknesses in order to broaden his appeal ... Palin seriously, seriously narrowed it. Her many and manifold incompetencies caused his campaign to take on the air of the clown act of a circus; while the media narrative about McCain-Palin shifted from being about a doughty old war hero with a pragmatic appeal and a genuinely compassionate-conservative conscience ... into a dramatic disaster movie of waiting for whatever next gaffe was almost honour-bound to fall, unbidden, out of Palin's parlously pachyglossal mouth.

In the end, slightly redder Democrats and undecided Independents wound up fearing that the electoral millstone about McCain's neck which would transform from dead albatross to live cockatiel (or, if you prefer, cockatrice - she certainly left McCain's campaign team petrified) in the event of, as the saying went, a few missed beats of a 71 year old man's heart, was just too much of a risk. Even if McCain himself seemed disturbingly sane by Republican presidential candidate standards (particularly in light of what we've been subjected to over the past electoral carnival season), placing Palin within the context of the White House with him would surely undercut that hard-won rationality.

So McCain lost - and in no small part due to his VP pick.

But it didn't have to be that way.

McCain's initial pick for Vice President was, in fact, Senator Joe Lieberman - a Democrat (at the time, anyway) ... and, perhaps more surprisingly, Al Gore's own Vice Presidential candidate during the 2000 Presidential Election.

In hindsight, the strengths which Lieberman would have brought to McCain's campaign seem obvious. Tea Partiers and their ilk could probably have been induced not to stay home on polling-day by the vague and nefarious threat of "Obama"; while Lieberman himself would have emphasized by his mere presence on the ballot McCain's ability to reach across the aisle and work with people outside his own party in the interests of progress. More importantly, a Lieberman-pick would have emphasized McCain's decent values and provided an ever-stronger beacon for Democrat and Independent voters with Democrat (or, perhaps more specifically, Hillary) inclinations to head on over in his direction.

In other words, by choosing a VP candidate who enhanced and focused McCain's appeal rather than undercutting and undermining it in a bid to reach out to a completely different demographic at the original candidate's expense, McCain could have potentially done significantly better than he did.

But McCain's aides felt that a more 'balanced' ticket was necessary and so veto'd Lieberman in favour of someone more overtly Capital-C Conservative.

Now it might seem a little strange to be spending so much time talking about a sputteringly failed Presidential campaign from almost a decade ago - and stranger still to make a strong comparison between John McCain and Donald Trump. But if we leave aside their polar-opposite views on immigration, foreign policy, and whether or not being captured by the North Vietnamese renders one a "loser" ... it has recently become disarmingly apparent that campaign efforts to Make America Great Again in 2016 bear an almost disconcerting resemblance to put Country First (McCain's slogan - and an interesting echo of Trump's own "America First") in 2008.

Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the severely disappointing choice of Mike Pence to be Trump's running-mate - precisely because this bewildering selection replicates many of the shortcomings which Palin hamstrung McCain with during his own run.

About the only saving grace in this comparison is that Pence is a far sharper cookie than Palin. Although this is perhaps not saying much, as Sarah Palin's politico-intellectual persona bore all the comparative depth of the Windsor gene-pool.

So let's review the evidence. Why on earth would Donald Trump have compromised his own campaign messaging by picking Pence?

On the face of it, there are three possible reasons: first, that Pence's geographic background as a Midwesterner might play a strategic role in helping Trump to win badly needed votes in Rust Belt states. This, at least makes a modicum of sense.

Second, Pence is reasonably well-connected and liked within the Republican's own internal hive-mind of networks. If Trump wants to transform his campaign from "outsider hijacked my party" into a serious and concerted push from the great red elephant cascading across the political situation room, then he arguably needs exactly the kind of institutional buy-in which a figure like Pence can bring to the table. Considering Trump's own ground-campaign during the Primary season was virtually non-existent in many places (apparently because Trump hoped to use the Republican Party's own networks and infrastructure to campaign in the post-Primary run up to November), this could be a badly overlooked previous strategic weakness which desperately needed plugging.

The third angle is that Trump's ideological (or, if you prefer, ruthlessly pragmatic) push to the relative Left of the Republican Party on issues ranging from the TPPA through to transsexuals using the bathroom they believe best fits their gender, and on into advocating for a higher federal minimum wage than Clinton, was perceived as too much of a political risk to remain 'unadulterated'. For one thing, the Republican Party apparatus could have withheld campaign resources from somebody they considered a severely imperfect embodiment of 'their' values. For another, more overtly 'right-wing' Republican voters might have either stayed home on polling day - or instead gotten in behind a third party candidate such as Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson.

So from an 'orthodox' political and risk-management point of view, it's perhaps not hard to see why senior Republican aides pushed for a figure like Pence to be "balancing" the Trump ticket in exactly the same way Palin brought "balance" to the McCain one. For the most part, that's because these are exactly the same reasons informing the decision-making of both Campaigns.

But the risk is that this will lead to exactly the same result.

And that's because the danger is in both situations that adding too much "balance" adulterant to a campaign fundamentally dilutes its original - and insurgent - appeal with both middle and disenfranchised/ignored voters.

Consider the strengths of Trump's campaign going forward thus far.

He's been plainly and unapologetically Protectionist as part of his push to win over the Working Class. One of the biggest and best-known instances of this was his strong opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, on grounds that it would steal jobs from ordinary Americans and give far too much power to corporations.

Pence, by contrast, supports the TPPA - as do a certain vocal proportion of influential Republicans.

The whole pro-Free Trade thing was one of the key ways in which Republican Elites were felt to be out of touch with ordinary workers; and with the elevation of Pence to the pole position of Trump's proverbial right-hand man, it becomes ever more difficult to argue that the Trump campaign represents an independent creature unbeholden to the neoliberal agenda of those self-same elites. The authenticity and salience of the campaign's values in the eyes of those working class voters upon whom the success or failure of the campaign depends, in other words, is under threat.

Another area in which this is quite clearly demonstrable is Pence's own position on the War in Iraq.

Trump's made quite the campaign talking point out of what you might term to be an "isolationist" foreign policy. He's consciously eschewed talk of further large-scale American military deployments to the Middle East (indeed, it's a core part of his "America First" rhetoric to be able to argue that funding which would otherwise be going to 'nation-building' offshore ought instead be spent on building the American nation at home); and has regularly and routinely pilloried Clinton's foreign policy record as both Secretary of State and as a Senator.

The trouble with this is that even though Trump's own foreign policy is refreshingly anti-Neocon ... Pence's own historic stances decidedly aren't.

Watch this video to get a feel for why this is dangerous for the Trump campaign. In short, it becomes difficult to continue banging on about Hillary Clinton's vote in favour of the war in Iraq as a perpetual black mark against her when your own running mate did the exact same thing. Particularly when Trump's defense-line about this is basically that Pence made a mistake more than ten years ago which perhaps shouldn't be brought up today due to questionable relevancy.

Which wears a bit thin when the polemic-point in question is one of Trump's own main main attack-lines against Clinton in order to neutralize her own record of political and institutional experience.

This doesn't just cast the authenticity of some of the campaign's values into question. Watching Trump extend to his running-mate the rhetorical courtesies which in the same breath he so vituperatively denies to his opponent ... on exactly the same issue ... starts to put Trump's own personal credibility in a somewhat shady light.

But it's the third area of what Pence brings to (or takes away from) the campaign which may be more surprising. The social policy side of things.

Now, this might be a somewhat unpopular position, but I believe that one of the reasons Trump's campaign has been such a runaway success (especially and particularly when juxtaposed against his previous Primary Republican rivals), is because Trump decided to eschew the traditional G.o.P. posturing on things like gay issues or transsexual rights, to instead focus upon economics - and, in particular, economic prescriptions which would be rhetorically salable as directly benefiting the working class. This actually turned out to be exactly what many alienated-Republican voters who'd switched off the party in the wake of Teabilly Madness wanted to hear. More importantly, it would have provided a salient path into the center-voters any Presidential campaign so desperately needs in order to be assured of victory. They want bread, not communion-wafer-dipped anti-sexual-minority-posturing media circuses - as you can rarely eat (as opposed to dine out on) the latter.

Pence's appointment once again suggests that this particular stylistic affectation of the Trump campaign is subject to review and potential scrapping as we head into the chaos of the General Election. Again, presumably because identity-politik posturing plays a significant degree better with the withered, fractious Republican hard-base than it does with the workers and center voters whom Trump's been attempting to bring in. As proof of this, contrast Pence's previous record on gay rights as Governor and prior versus Trump's easy dismissal of the recent transsexual bathroom 'controversy' as being any form of issue - still much less a campaign one.

All in all, the picking of Pence represents a sort of a 'win' for the Republican Establishment against their insurgent and errant recently-crowned Champion. They have bridled, bent and broken the Trump Train to their collective will - and in the vain hopes that Trump either holds on to their base, or that they can exert some perceived greater measure of influence upon him should he find himself in the White House.

But in so doing, they have once again and once more rendered both harder and more delayed the long-prophecy'd and portended attempts at turning the Republican Party back from being the plaything of religious zealots or those with money into some semblance of a Working Man's Party - in symbolism and values if not necessarily in full aspiration.

A man like Ret. General Robert Flynn would have been an ideal Vice Presidential selection for Trump to make if the Republicans were serious about fueling that ambition and truly 'breaking out into the mainstream'. His previous statements on abortion and same-sex marriage seemed disturbingly sane for a man addressing the Republican National Convention; and his record of service at the highest levels of both the armed forces and the state intelligence apparatus would have given much needed heft and credibility to Trump's posturing on issues of state. Flynn's previous allegiances as a Democrat would also have further enhanced the Trump's campaign to 'reach across the aisle' to previously Democratic and Swing voters in much the same way that Lieberman's history as a Democrat would have availed John McCain in doing the same thing in '08.

But then as now, the Republican elites cannot bear to see a ticket which does not represent nor reflect them - and, it would appear, are quite readily prepared to sacrifice some modicum of electability for their man in order to ensure that they don't seem like strangers in their own party.

Pence will not be as catastrophic for Trump as Palin was for her running-mate; but all the same, I severely doubt whether history will judge the decision of behind-the-scenes influence-brokers to outsider men like Flynn in favour of value-concordant insider men such as Pence.

The Republican Party, it seems, does not want to be made great again just yet.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Economic Threats From China Expose Lie Of Free Trade

A little more than a decade ago, various parties boldly declared that the economic future of New Zealand lay in being some form of colossal, country-sized milking shed (and, to be fair, milk powder processing plant) for the People's Republic of China. To that end, we signed up to a rather lopsided Free Trade Deal with China which forced us to abandon any pretense of mercantilism or dirigisme for our own domestic economic interests - while at the same time giving the Chinese literally decades to slightly soften and ameliorate their own protectionist economic measures.

It was a great deal.

For the Chinese, at any rate.

But what about little old New Zealand?

Certainly, a large portion of our primary produce exports are bound for the Chinese market; although it has not escaped the attention of many that in that direction, too, go commanding stakes in the ownership of a certain swathe of Auckland's housing - and a not insignificant number of our best and most iconic farms.

Concerns about 'free trade' and associated legalistic ensnarements have been cited in both instances as justification by the Government to refrain from doing anything meaningful about either.

But where leaving serious matters of state up to the limp-wristed hand of the free market might do for the New Zealand National Party ... the same cannot be said for our supposed friends in Beijing.

In reaction and response to news that the New Zealand Government has gotten a bit uneasy about decidedly sub-standard Chinese steel being put into our own domestic infrastructure projects (and accompanied by fraudulent safety standard certification, no less), the PRC is apparently considering raising punitive "reprisal tariffs" on Kiwi primary produce exports in order to force our government to move to protect Chinese interests rather than our own.

As yourself. Just what kind of "Free Trade Deal" is this when one party can act to unilaterally put the economic screws upon the smaller, weaker party for expressly and avowedly political purposes.

What's the point of a bit of paper stating our commitment to abolish tariffs on Chinese imports if, when push comes to shove, our nominal trade "partner" sees fit on a whim to massively increase their own tariffs on our exports to there.

And worse, it now appears that the PRC was able to illicitly gain Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment information about New Zealand's prospective inquiry into this matter.

These tropes, all put together, are not the hallmarks of a healthy, bilateral and egalitarian trading relationship.

Instead, considered as part of a holistic plot, they put one in the mind of a noir Mafia film. Everything from the sub-standard product sold to us without regard for the potential human consequences through to the threats if we raise a fuss fits this rubric. ESPECIALLY the part of the story where going to law enforcement fails because the folk running this evident economic extortion racket appear to have a man or men on the inside passing them information, and pushing pointed punitive measures against those we care about in response.

And as the morally innocuous 'straight man' protagonist of a certain variety of Mafia movie, we now find ourselves having stepped into a murky world where the promises of power, influence and 'get rich quick' are underscored and bellied by that most uncomfortable fact - that we are now in a place and in an arrangement where we most decidedly do NOT make the rules, and find instead find ourselves the unwitting subjects of a seriously Faustian (at best) bargain.

Perhaps the only truly 'winning' move of this game would have been not to play.

But it's a bit late for that.

And given the extent to which our economies are presently entwined, the sage advice of the ancient German proverb that when one sups with the Devil, one ought remember to use a long-handled spoon is plainly no longer applicable.

There are no easy ways out of this situation, in the short term at least. We will likely not win a substantive trade war with China. They simply comprise too much of our market (and us, too little of theirs) for 'victory' (whatever that might look like) to even be contemplated. Throwing the combined powers of the WTO or something at them would also be a move of questionable efficacy, as the Obama Administration has previously discovered to its irritation when it sought to do similar over the issue of the PRC's artificially undervalued currency.

At best, there are longer term insights to be drawn from this in a potential bid to prevent a deleterious repeat from occurring.

First and foremost that export-lead growth as an enduring strategy is best pursued with a number of different 'large basket' trade partners simultaneously. Winston has already made the case for opening up greater trade relations with, for instance, the Russian Federation as a means and a mechanism to broaden our trade portfolio and remove some of the eggs of risk from the present, excessively overburdened Chinese basket of exchange.

Second, that we would do well and wisely to learn the lesson obliquely presented here about the sheer folly of hoping that the happy-clappy good-will of New Zealand to such countries as we may enter into world-first trade deals with are necessarily shared by our erstwhile 'partners'. International relations and especially transnational economic flows are a cut-throat, realpolitik driven business. States look out and after their own interests - nobody else views themselves as owing us a living, and we should perhaps come to expect this sort of slipshod perfidious conduct from those we do business with.

Third, the benefits and likely outcomes of trade deals are almost always oversold. And the political Cassandras who cast doubtful aspersions are mocked and derided for their foresight. Nobody generally wants to be straight-up and honest about the plain (if somewhat occluded) reality that the trade deal they've just negotiated contains nasty stings of this nature hidden in the tail.

And fourth, this whole mess eventuated princely and primarily because New Zealand entities made the curious decision to source cheap and sub-standard Chinese steel rather than buying from more local producers with a superior proven track-record of quality.

One obvious mechanism by which we might avoid similar situations from occurring in the future, then, is to mandate that where possible materials procured for domestic infrastructure projects ought, where possible, be sourced from local producers rather than offshore. Obviously, this will not be possible in every instance, and there will be clear occasions upon which materials from other nations will be both cheaper and better quality than that which we can produce here at home. But the net positive impacts upon domestic employment and industry from mandating that Kiwi government objectives be carried out primarily by Kiwi firms using Kiwi materials are palpable.

So palpable, in fact, that New Zealand First's Andrew Williams put a Private Member's Bill in the ballot about four years ago in order to accomplish exactly that.

In conclusion, then, it is perhaps possible to view what's eventuated as being something of an inevitable crisis. Given China's reputation for corrupt practices and shoddy, el-cheapo exports, it was arguably only a matter of time before something akin to the Melamine milk crisis would re-eventuate here on our own shores.

Fortunately, no lives have been lost here - and the deficiencies in some of the steel which was used to construct part of the Waikato Expressway were detected in sufficient time to alter designs for some bridges and source other replacement steel before the rest of it was used.

But this is not going to be the last time something like this happens.

We can but hope that future governments learn the appropriate lessons from this sad series of incidences.

To do otherwise would make a waste of decidedly more than just steel.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Strange Rumblings In Carterton: Reflections On Spending My Weekend Campaigning For Ron Mark

Over this weekend just gone, I was deployed alongside more than a dozen members of New Zealand First's new, nascent youth wing into the Wairarapa electorate. The mission was simple: train and upskill a group of ardent young people in preparation for the necessary exigencies of what promises to be a thrilling 2017 campaign.

But while the fact that NZ First once again has an officially recognized and boisterous bunch of enthusiastic young supporters ready to do the hard-yards of doorknocking and street-activism is comment-worthy news in and of itself ... what I found most surprising was the general message and feedback which we got from the people of Wairarapa when we asked them whether they'd consider supporting NZ First at the next Election.

Let me put it this way: the two most common responses we got while canvassing were that i) "we love Ron"; and ii) "we like Ron, but we don't like Winston".

Now both of these two responses tell us potentially something interesting about the prospective and presumptive future of New Zealand First.

The import of the first insight is simple. It tells us that there is a very strong likelihood that Ron Mark will carry the Wairarapa seat either in 2017 if you're a betting man - or certainly by 2020.

As Ron himself puts it, the 2014 Campaign pitted a man who made his decision and announced his candidacy 25 days out from polling day up against two candidates who'd been electioneering for the best part of three years. Despite this semi-self imposed handicap, Ron scored about twelve percent of the party vote in Wairarapa - a significant improvement over the 5.56% of the party vote which New Zealand First scored in this electorate the last time we fielded a candidate (and a more than doubling of our vote in absolute terms over the same period).

But the real story's in Ron's share of the candidate vote - an impressive 23% and a mere eight hundred votes behind the second placed Labour candidate.

Now to be fair, this is a bit behind the 43.6% which Alastair Scott scored; but it's worth noting that i) Scott is fast developing a reputation as a 'mushroom candidate' (that is to say one who only springs up in the electorate during campaign season and is virtually invisible on the ground at all other times of the electoral cycle); ii) that it's National's popularity rather than Scott's which will have induced Wairarapians to vote for him; and iii) National at large is presently expressing a substantive swing away from it in terms of support out in the provinces as people wake up to the fact that they're merely regarded by the Nats as 'campaign-cows' whose votes are worth something rather than people to actually help.

Meanwhile, NZ First has been resolutely and relentlessly pushing a message that an alternative future for the Provinces is possible. Both through solid and innovative policy, as well as the substantive mood of possibility generated through Winston's carrying of the provincial seat (and National stronghold) of Northland.

So when I go doorknocking or streetcanvassing in Wairarapa and impressive numbers of people even amidst the local-equivalent-to-Epsom suburb of Landsdowne tell me they like what Ron's about ... this rather strongly suggests that Ron is already on track to make handsome inroads on winning the Wairarapa come 2017. This is particularly so in light of the advantages conferred by a far longer lead-time (a little less than three years as compared to a little more than three weeks); what appears to be a seriously dedicated and competent campaign team; and the additional positives of both incumbency (as a list MP) and a burgeoning and well-respected nationwide profile.

And besides, as one of my pol-hack friends points out ... Ron's share of the vote and absolute number of votes in Wairarapa in 2014 already exceeds Rodney Hide's share of either measure in Epsom in 2002 - a mere three years before Hide narrowly won another Heartland National electorate seat.

So the strategic import of all of this ought to be immediately and crystal clear. When people talk about a list of certain 'knife-edge' electorates whose outcome next year will decide the election, they customarily mean places like Ohariu or Epsom or Waiariki. To that list I think we can now fairly confidently add Wairarapa - where a victory for Ron would almost certainly put a 61-seat majority for National and its lap-dogs out of reach.

Further, and from the longer-term Party perspective ... developments in the Wairarapa also suggest that NZ First's future is not strictly tied to Northland. Even though there is a small chance it will be 2020 rather than 2017 in which Ron takes the Wairarapa, we look set to be in the enviable position of possessing a twinned pair of provincial seats with which to anchor our future and potentially even consider embarking from upon some form of grandiose Long March Through The Provinces.

And this oblique commentary on NZ First's prospective future brings me nicely onto my second point. Namely, that there appears to be quite a number of voters out there who like NZ First but not necessarily Winston, or would potentially support a given NZ First MP (and in particular Ron) if it didn't mean implicitly supporting Peters as well. Apparently Brian Donnelly had exactly the same thing happen to him during his ill-starred 1999 candidacy in Whangarei as well.

Now, don't take that the wrong way. I am fanatically loyal to Winston, and resolutely believe that he is the single greatest Opposition MP presently performing in the House. Perhaps of all time.

But what I am trying to say here is that what we witnessed in Wairarapa over the weekend seems to strongly suggest that there is, indeed, very much and far more to NZ First's dominant appeal out there in the electorate than Winston. And that amongst a goodly swathe of voters going forward, we shall continue to enjoy strong support even after he steps down or dies in office.

In fact, in some quarters out there in the electorate (but importantly - not all), it is arguable that NZ First's support would actually increase with a new figure at the helm. Although we would understandably have to work incredibly hard to build back and maintain the level of interest, enthusiasm and outright passion amongst both membership and voters which Winston brings to the semi-literal party.

So all things considered, my weekend warriordom down in the Wairarapa has left me considerably optimistic about New Zealand First's - and therefore the country's - future.

We quite clearly have an enormously competent and capable MP and Deputy Leader in the person of Ron Mark, who's well positioned to both take his electorate seat at some point in the near future - and who clearly understands what it takes to build an election-winning campaign movement.

It's also a really great sign that parts of New Zealand First are already well ensconced in 'campaign mode', and putting in serious groundwork towards 2017 - which looks set to be our next watershed election.

And best of all, I know that we're going to be in safe and steadfast hands for the semi-foreseeable future well beyond that even when we finally get to Life After Winston.

In short ... I Have Seen The Future - And It Is Black.

I don't think it's ever looked better.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Democratic Participation Is Not A Grey Area - Protect The Elderly's Right To Vote

One of the laziest and most objectionable ways to go about securing political victory is simply outright disenfranchising those who may happen to disagree with you. Those who vote for the "wrong" outcome or principle. Those whom your own force of rhetoric and campaign mobilization just can't seem to "properly" motivate to go the right way.

In American politics, this has become something of a high art form. Voter disenfranchisement via ever more complex and byzantine schemes is almost de rigeur in many polities and political contests over there. Black voters and the less economically well off are the customary targets - Republican campaign strategists rightly perceive these demographics as being vastly less likely to support their right-wing facemen, and so act to make it more difficult if not outright impossible for these people to vote, accordingly.

When this happens, and elections are stolen - outcomes perverted - through the frank and outright denial of democracy in such a manner ... we rightfully and righteously decry it.

The marginalization of the subaltern from the political process serves only to weaken faith in political institutions and considerably empower the wealthy, the white and the already-entrenched-and-ensconced elite.

And yet, even - and perhaps especially - in this area, not all are treated the same.

There is apparently one demographic which, above all others, it is possible or even ajudged prudent and positive to speak openly of ruling out from electoral participation in our democracy.

The Elderly.

The most recent outburst of such reprehensible and repugnant sentiment has been spurred once again into the limelight by the seismic shock of last month's #Brexit vote in the UK; but as my piece from almost exactly a year ago castigating errant rogue economist Gareth Morgan for advocating pretty much exactly the same thing demonstrates ... this is a sad idea that is regrettably not new to our public discourse.

The core arguments are always the same.

Namely, that the elderly vote more often and more consistently than other, younger demographics and ought thus be 'excluded' in order to prevent more youthful voices from being 'drowned out' by their own inaction on polling day. That the modern world is a confusing, frightening place for which older voters are allegedly ill-equipped to electorally navigate. That they support policies or principles seemingly inimical to whichever bobble-headed young commentator's chosen to pick up the cudgel of curmudeonly argument this time ... and perhaps most perniciously of all, that some of them might even ... *gasp* ... vote for Winston Peters.

Each of these is a pretty abhorrent justification for deliberately short-circuiting democracy. Taken together, and at the flood, they're outright abominable.

The effective picture we are confronted with by pachyglossal pundits pen-pushing in pursuit of a patronizing paleo-purge of our present political process is that if we allow them the vote, then our nation's democracy will be overrun by a wild, flailing, irrational 'silver horde' of ill-qualified electors only barely and dimly capable of perceiving - in political terms, if not outright literally - anything more remote than a few inches in front of their own faces, or above their own hazily perceived 'self-interest'.

If that rhetoric sounds familiar ... it's because it is. Exactly the same stereotyping and prejudice has been deployed on previous occasions in order to notionally "justify" excluding other groups in society from being able to vote.

First, it was the workers (i.e. those males above a certain age who weren't already landed or property-owning); and then, women.

Somewhat ironically, given the alleged utility of denying the elderly the vote in the name of bolstering 'youth participation' in our politics, it was also the same language employed in order to oppose reducing the voting age to 18.

Funny how times have changed, isn't it.

But because the manifest ridicularity of each and every one of the 'arguments' in favour of stripping the vote from the elderly is evidently not entirely and obviously self-apparent to columnists such as the Herald's Matt Heath ... we'll have to go through and respond to each one directly.

First, there's Heath's initial by-line premise: "Why should the elderly decide a future they won't be here to see?"

A wise man once said that a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in. That's exactly the inverse logic to what's outlined above in Heath's article - and apart from being a far more preferable vision for how society might work, also in my experience lines up far more closely with how the older generation actually *does* think. Namely, that even if they themselves aren't going to be directly and personally around to experience the better society they might help build with their vote ... they can jolly well do their level best to attempt to bequeath a greater future to their grandchildren.

The Green Party's evidently cottoned on to exactly this form of thinking. It helps to explain why they were so vocal and vociferous with the whole "vote for me" element to their 2011 election campaign - replete with aspirational child-figure whose interests older, greyer electors could act to defend and advance via their choice at the ballot-box. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's also a principle much of NZ First's policy turns on. I still remember at my first-ever NZF Convention in 2010 getting up and selling the room on a universal student allowance and I think from memory a zero fees policy for tertiary education. Even though literally only a handful of the people in that room (who were, perhaps unsurprisingly, predominantly elderly) had ever actually been to university ... they first-up wanted to ensure greater opportunities and outcomes for those who'd come after them than they'd had - and second, they were also aware that once upon a time both of these policies were just accepted facts with how we'd done things in New Zealand, so already implicitly knew these ideas were 'possible' rather than merely 'pie in the sky'. The same logic applies to environmental policy, in that you're probably more inclined to support clean and swimable rivers for your grandkids to enjoy if you were, yourself, able to remember when they used to be exactly that some sixty years before.

And in fact, that's another key and salient point which flies flat in the face of Heath's 'reasoning'. The votes and values of the elderly don't axiomatically represent wild and irrational electoral flailing in a "terrifyingly confusing" modern world (Heath's words, not mine). Instead, quite often they represent the rational and compassionate actions of venerable storehouses of knowledge and living history. They don't just remember when the rivers used to be cleaner - they also remember such present-day myths as affordable housing, full employment, and fair, livable wages being prior and accepted realities worth fighting to maintain.

Gosh, perhaps in some ways the world really WAS a better place when older voters were our age.

Meanwhile, if you want to see 'selfish' politics which runs a serious risk of wrecking up the place ... I hear there's a nice young man by the name of David Seymour presently running ACT.

And while we're on the subject of neoliberalism, it is simply untrue to state as Heath does that everything which has gone wrong economically since 1984 is the fault of elderly voters.

Voters - elderly or otherwise - did not vote for Rogernomics in that abominable Year Zero. Nor did they vote for Ruthanasia two cycles later. In actual fact, when largely older voters motioned to support National in 1990, it was overwhelmingly because Bolger campaigned upon rolling back Rogernomics. The fact that National then proved entirely perfidious and rolled out a further round of ruinous neoliberal "reform" due to an economic conspiracy headed up by Ruth Richardson is not the fault of elderly voters - particularly given they voted for the *exact opposite* to take place.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, the generations we're talking about are overwhelmingly the ones who fought so bitterly for us to have a referendum upon our electoral system in 1993. The same one which gave us MMP.

It's questionable as to the extent to which MMP has ever been truly embraced by an older generation frankly accustomed to having elected representatives who directly represent a certain defined constituency (and almost invariably a smaller one than today's electoral seats, at that) ... but the fact remains that we almost certainly wouldn't have secured the transition to proportional representation (Which, incidentally, gives young people far more of a say through the List Vote than FPP ever did by virtue of not letting our voices be drowned out by mere geography) as and when we did without exactly the same group of people Heath pillories for allegedly being responsible for "the way things turned out" economically during the 80s and early 90s.

And this misaligned finger-pointing also puts paid to Heath's next assertion: that older New Zealanders insisting they paid taxes to fund their future pensions all their working lives should apparently be denied a state-funded retirement because the elderly have somehow misappropriated all the money set aside to provide them.

Nobody voted for the National Party to stop making contributions to the Cullen Fund in order to fund a flag referendum (widely unpopular with the elderly). And, perhaps more importantly, the Party which put compulsory national savings back on the agenda was New Zealand First (otherwise known as the stereotypical preferential party of the elderly) in the late 1990s - we even secured a referendum on the subject to bring it about.

So all things considered, apart from it seeming churlish at best to attempt to blame the elderly for the failings of the politicians they continually voted AGAINST ... it's also flat-up wrong. My experience with many, MANY politically active older New Zealanders is that they tend to be far more altruistic, considerate, and forward-thinking with their votes than the average, stereotypical young person.

This is at least partially because the average stereotypical young person has probably only got a fifty percent or smaller chance of actually bothering to vote.

And while it might seem like I"m somewhat exaggerating that statistic for rhetorical impactuous effect, I've also seen data which suggests that only about 40% of "Millenials" (i.e. people about my age) voted in the recent #Brexit referendum. The complaints that the strong and concerted vote of the elderly (who were something like 80% likely to vote in the same referendum) thus "stole" the result by "drowning out" the voices of the young in an illegitimate manner are thus nonsense. A small number of young people cared vigorously enough to vote, many of them for "Remain" - and then when it turned out they'd lost, attempted to cry 'foul' on grounds that it was somehow unfair that the people they needed to turn out to swing the result simply didn't bother.

Which, if you look not at all that closely, appears to be exactly Heath's argument all the way through.

It has been said that one of the main issues with democracy is that it makes "my ignorance worth just as much as your knowledge". But regardless of whether this is desirable or not or even particularly true, that's an entirely different maxim to "my lack of participation is worth just as much as your active engagement".

We start to enter into very curious and very vexing territory when non-votes (not abstentions - straight up absences of votes caused by somebody not even bothering to enter a polling booth) are treated with exactly as much if not vastly more weight than actual votes.

And yet that is apparently exactly what is being advocated here.

Empowering the voice of youth in politics by systemically disempowering people who actually vote in the vague and most likely vain hopes that a few twentysomethings more will actually take an interest on polling day.


And worse still - patronizing madness.

My grandparents' generation straight-up BUILT many of the noble social and economic institutions which gave New Zealand its much-vaunted status as number two in the world for living standards. The visionary Labour government of the 1930s which allowed John A. Lee almost free reign to construct tens of thousands of affordable houses for New Zealand Families is not just in living memory - but contains abject living lessons for the politicians and politics of today.

To insist that our elderly citizens should be steadfastly deprived of their right to vote purely because of some ineluctable combination of a referendum result on the literal other side of the world and spiraling youth apathy about politics is heinous.

And also, in terms of the magical utopia of sudden unselfish rationalism it will supposedly usher into our nation's politics, flagrantly disingenuous.

Nobody seriously disputes that flagging youth engagement with politics is a serious problem.

But the only 'solution' presented with Matt Heath's column is presumably the 180-proof paintstripper substitute Ouzo bottle which I'd have to imbibe the level entirety of in order to take a single one of his proposed panaceas  seriously.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Government Continues Fudging Statistics To Hide Failure

In many countries around the world, statistics about things like the rates of unemployment or crime are used by the government of the day to demonstrate changes in those areas. In New Zealand, by contrast, changes in statistics (as in, changes in what the statistics actually represent) are used instead to obscure a lack of improvement in same.

I was absolutely gobsmacked last night to read a piece over on Radio New Zealand which suggested that our government had massively improved unemployment figures by simply "refining" the definition for who counts as unemployed. Not merely, you understand, because it had happened (revisions in the collection of statistical data are an unavoidable consequence of a pursuit of accuracy), but also because of the absolute brazenness of the subterfuge being employed to do so.

In 21st century New Zealand - theoretically a hub of technological innovation and social media uptake, which is on-track to have something like 90% of the population using smartphones, and around seven internet-capable devices per person by the end of the decade - we are being told that looking for jobs online apparently doesn't count as "actively seeking work".

And therefore, anyone who does their jobhunting in cyberspace rather than spending money on a print-copy newspaper or going cap-in-hand to all the local non-hiring shops ... is not actually unemployed.

That's madness. Twelve thousand people worth of madness, in fact, who've been artificially shaved off the unemployment figures in order to allow the Government of the day to boast about the "lowest unemployment figures in 7 years". Quite why unemployment rates almost equivalent to those at the height of the Great Recession global financial crisis are something to be lauded rather lambasted as not working hard enough (the government, that is - not the people down at WINZ in a client capacity) is beyond me.

But the fact remains that it's difficult to perceive how consciously and deliberately excluding the main route by which many New Zealanders search for - and find - new employment from the legitimacy of official recognition is actually supposed to help anyone except National.

Evidently it has been decided from On High that it's easier to change the definition of unemployment rather than actually putting in the hard work of helping to foster and create jobs for people.

And while it would be bad enough if the Government were merely monkeying around with unemployment statistics ... recent questions asked in Parliament by NZ First Social Development & Associate Police Spokesperson Darroch Ball have shone a light upon the fact that Police Minister Judith Collins is once again up to her old tricks doing exactly the same thing with crime statistics.

Collins, as you may remember, presided as Police Minister over what appears to have been something of a culture of illegally downgrading and failing to properly record offending (particularly within Collins' own electorate, which I'm sure is just a coincidence) so that the Government would be able to falsely claim that they'd made a serious impact on crime going into an election year. It's perhaps rather telling that the specific category of offending they were caught out over - making 700 burglaries in and around the Papakura Electorate disappear - is also the same area which large-scale public outcry has recently forced both policemen and politicians to highlight.

The evasive pattern of non-answering to Ball's questions in the House on this issue earlier in the week suggests that Collins and National know they're weak on this issue. The fact that National also presided over a fundamental change to the way we record crime data in New Zealand - which means we no longer know how many crimes are committed, nor what the resolution rate for these complaints is - further serves to confirms this.

At the outset of this piece, I claimed that many countries around the world legitimately used statistics in order to observe and demonstrate changes in their public affairs. But in a certain sort of country, publicly available and politically useful statistics are instead treated as mere propaganda tools, or somewhat inelegant poetry for the campaign trail.

We have a few choice words which we tend to reserve for polities of this nature. "Corrupt", "Orwellian", and "Tinpot" spring instantly to mind.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine for themselves whether the actions of the National Party over a protracted period of time bring New Zealand down to that lofty, low standard.