Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Auckland Electoral Post-Mortem Part 1: 'Solids' And 'Biddables'

So now that the dust's started to settle and the excitement's mostly over (barring one or two personages who'll be sitting on tenterhooks awaiting the results of special voting), the attention of the Commentariat has sensibly turned to picking over the weekend's local body electoral result.

I say "sensibly", but there's been a marked tendency towards some decidedly 'unsensible' conclusions. This is presumably an artifact of the FPP mindset which still dominates some aspects of electoral coverage. We want clear, defined and decisive 'winners' and 'losers'. It's much more narratively interesting to be able to present a 'left-bloc' crusading to victory over and against one or more right-wing factions.

But - particularly around the Council table - this isn't exactly how things actually work.

There, as with the very earliest days of Parliament at the national level, you're effectively dealing with far more 'independent' creatures than the fairly tightly-whipped confederations of opinion we find in our modern political parties. Each Councilor is an individual - often, functionally and in practice an Independent (whether they ran as one or not) - and subject to a potentially bewildering array of considerations when it comes time for them to decide how they're going to vote on a particular issue.

Some of these are going to be patently obvious. Those wishing to be re-elected and on thin majorities will wish to please certain (perhaps more vocal) portions of their local constituencies. Others might have particular vaunted paths of idealism which they wish to head down, and which will govern their decision-making behavior. Kow-towing to the wishes of wealthy financiers may be a third consideration. And coming distantly fourth when we talk of motivations - but probably somewhere about first or second in actual practice - are the wishes of Council technocrats lurking murkily in the shadows.

But there's one factor of absolutely vital importance which often falls completely through the cracks in public consideration - perhaps because it's so hard to pin down by journalists.

And that, dear friends, is the subtle art of influence-peddling and vote-bidding.

On every Council there emerges one or more figures who 'wield the chains', if you like that link to the collars of a dozen or more of their compatriots. Somebody who's capable of inducing 'by hook or by crook' the people around them to be herded in the right direction for an agenda to take place.

Ideally, this is the Mayor's job - to form a 'working majority' from his or her fellows, and get enough votes lining up the right way to ensure certain flagship items pass so that her or his vision can be immanentized.

More recently, and for a number of reasons, that job seems to have fallen to (now previous, possibly shortly present) Auckland Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse. But as that appears largely to have been the result of Brown's political failings, his replacement with incoming Mayor Phil Goff may result in that responsibility transitioning.

Goff is an indisputably experienced coalition-builder (as anyone inheriting the mantle of Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party must surely be); but let's take a look at what he's working with.

Hitherto, some commentators have attempted to divide up the Auckland Council into 'left' and 'right', with maybe a few 'centrist' folks thrown in for good measure. Or, with deference to the fact that former Rodney Councilor Penny Webster came to the Brown camp from out of deepest, darkest ACT ... Pro-Mayor and Anti-Mayor. Or, when it comes to The Spinoff ... "People We Like", and "Sea-Goblins".

But the truth is actually rather more complex.

For our purposes, we can probably divide the Council across two axes - 'left' and 'right' (relatively speaking), and 'biddable' versus 'solid'. The first duality's self-explanatory; the second refers to how amenable a given Councilor is to wavering in their quasi-ideological convictions in service of the Mayor's presumptive vaguely center-left agenda.

The names comprising the 'Solid Left' ought come as no surprise. Mike Lee & Cathy Casey have histories of service and well-renowned records. Even The Spinoff couldn't argue with the principle and application of the latter. To this number we can add the two 'Putting People First' Councilors from Albany, Wayne Walker & John Watson; and from the Manukau ward, Efeso Collins. I'm also told that Richard Hills, the potential-Councilor (dependent upon pending special votes in North Shore), would be a likely candidate for inclusion in this group - although the risk with younger folk is you never quite know how they're going to go in the absence of a longer record of service to extrapolate from.

The people on the 'Biddable Left', in many ways aren't that different from the constituent members of the 'Solid Left'. And there's much that is positive to say about a number of them and their achievements. They're classed as 'Biddable' due to potential differing priorities which mark them as an arguably softer form of left. They include folk people look up to such as Alf Filipaina and Penny Hulse (who themselves have a strong working relationship); and further along the spectrum towards the center, individuals like Chris Darby and Ross Clow (the latter of which definitely comes from the 'right-wing' of Labour).

Now out on the 'Biddable Right', we have individuals like Bill Cashmore (whom I'm told can occasionally seem somewhat indistinguishable from Ross Clow), Daniel Newman, John Walker, and Christine Fletcher - with potential question-marks over Greg Sayers and Linda Cooper. The reasoning for their 'right-wing' labeling ought to be plainly & readily apparent. The 'biddable' heading comes from the fact that these are often not entirely unreasonable people, who can in fact be swayed towards lending their votes and support to the occasional Good Idea.

Further out again on the 'Solid Right', in approximate order of sanity and obstructionism, we have Denise Krum (possibly the most successful person to come out of United Future in recent years - and being singlehandedly responsible for 100% of Auckland Future's Council-seat gains this year ... albeit only by patching over from her former affiliation of C&R), Sharon Stewart, and Dick Quax. These last two presumably require no introduction - and represent one of the few times that The Spinoff's unique brand of creatively illustrative vitriol-branding is entirely and unambiguously accurate in its assessment.

So if you were to look out across the Council Table from the Mayor's pole position, what you'd see is probably an approximate Ten-Ten split with yourself as the casting vote. Not an entirely bad place to be in. Particularly when we add in the potential buffer of a few 'biddable right' Councilors who can occasionally be induced to support certain measures.

In terms of how the 'left' is doing long-term and overall, it's probably more useful to consider any changes in numbers on the Council in their proper historical context, rather than the 'vacuum' of a single election result.

Specifically, the way that the 2013 reversals for the left in the form of Denise Krum replacing Richard Northey and Linda Cooper replacing Sandra Coney (the first due to a narrow electoral loss, the second due to retirement) have now, themselves, been reversed due to the replacement of George Wood on the North Shore, and the election of Efeso Collins down South.

Although considering the finely tuned matters of numbers and balance, I can't help but wonder what would have eventuated if The Spinoff's call for Bill Ralston to triumph over Mike Lee had actually eventuated.

It occurs that 11-9 in favour of the 'right' is a lot less favourable, even though it's a single vote, as compared to an even 10-10 plus Mayor.

Hopefully that clears things up a little.

[I'd like to acknowledge the political sources I talked to as part of the preparation for this piece]

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Battleground Wairarapa: Why Ron Mark Is Poised To Take The Seat Off National

One of the benefits of being a political insider is that people tell you things. Often, things which the original source of the information would probably dearly have liked to keep secret. These little revelations help to make sense of wider and overt trends which many people notice, but which don't necessarily make full sense in the absence of the 'hidden' information which puts them in context.

Part-way through last month, I became aware of a number of interesting things happening down in the Wairarapa electorate. This is a National seat (and these days arguably something of a 'safe' one), but with a local MP widely regarded as an aloof and out-of-touch carpet-bagger who spends most of his time in Wellington. So we'd presumably be unsurprised to see the Nats putting a bit of work in to campaign there next year.

But deploying massed ground forces THIS far out from the Election?

That's a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.

And yet, that's exactly what's happening.

People down there have noted with bemusement and interest that the Young Nats have been out street-campaigning for their local MP for several weeks now. Clearly they're going to keep building up from there for the next year or so.

So this tells us that the Nats are scared.

But of what?

Well, that's where the 'surreptitious information' bit comes in.

National commissioned a phone-poll of about ten thousand houses in the Wairarapa electorate. That's the vast majority of them.

The results were, from their perspective at least, probably not the most encouraging. Somewhere about 73% of voters held an unfavourable opinion of Alastair Scott and were considering not voting for him. That's a pretty strongly negative result.

Meanwhile, Ron Mark's been steadily gaining ground all the while through solid hard graft and stellar constituency engagement. The meetings NZF have been holding in the Wairarapa electorate regularly pack out halls with hundreds. When I did a bit of doorknocking for Ron earlier this year, we found a fairly overwhelmingly positive response from people there for him.

To be fair, the 2014 voting breakdown does leave some ground for Ron to make up. 7593 votes, in fact.

But bear in mind that in 2014 Ron's campaign was run 'seat-of-the-pants' style - announcing a few weeks before polling day, and contesting the race with a small (but highly proficient) campaign team.

2017 looks set to be thoroughly different, as not only does Ron now have the advantages of incumbency (after a sort, being the local List MP of note; as well as a nationally regarded leading Opposition MP), but his war-chest and crew of rampantly enthusiastic volunteers continues to swell.

Labour may also be looking for a new candidate to contest the next Election - but even if they stick with Kieran McAnulty, they face an uphill struggle to reverse the three consecutive electoral cycles' worth of declining candidate vote which they've tended to have in that seat.

And besides, in a rural seat one simply has to ask the obvious question: which Opposition party is more likely to be able to win and capture the hearts and minds of defecting soft-National voters. A declining, fading former party of government which appears set to be eventually relegated to 'minor party' status ... or the vigorously rising crew who've launched an effective (and evidently well-regarded) Crusade for Regional New Zealand.

So all things considered, National is definitely right to be scared. They face the unenviable situation of already having lost a single 'safe' seat to the NZF onslaught - and, perhaps more remarkably, being potentially set to lose another one.

Either way, New Zealand First is in a demonstrably strong position - and I, for one, can't wait to see the mounting cavalcade of consternating terror from National towards us over the next twelve months.