Monday, September 28, 2020

Where NZ First Went Wrong

The way a snare works  is quite simple. The more the creature in it struggles .. the tighter the noose becomes. Had it gone another way, taken another approach, and resisted its instinct to thrash madly against the rope - it could much more easily slip out. But in its desperation - it does not do that, and consigns itself to its fate. 

Now, New Zealand First is no wild animal (for the most part) - and we are not yet at the point wherein the Party can safely be cut open for a postmortem. It is an old war-horse - and woe betide the man who sneaks up behind a horse unprepared for a good kicking. That vigour may yet manage to propel the charger across the five percent finish line rather than to the 'finished' line a few weeks hence. 

But last night's Reid Research poll - coming as it does upon the heel of last week's Colmar Brunton and seeming to confirm the party's down in the margin-of-error thickets of circa two percent - should be worrying for them. Despite all the customary bluster about polling for NZF never being accurate (and I can still hear Winston's words echo in my ears about the 2002 results being out by "more than a thousand percent") - there was only an 0.1% difference between the Reid Research poll prediction for NZF immediately prior to the 2017 Election, and their actual result on the night. 

So what has happened? How has it come to this? 

Well, the simple answer is also simply wrong. Many people shall look at tonight's Reid Research (as well as the various other previous polling of this cycle) and conclude that the rising New Conservatives (on 2.1% in the Reid Research, 1.6% in the Colmar Brunton) and Advance NZ have cannibalized NZF's vote. 

Except if we go back through 2014 and 2011 - the Conservatives were able to return reasonably high (by their standards) results of 3.97% and 2.65% ... without eating significantly in to NZ First's vote (8.66% and 6.59% respectively). 

It would be tempting to presume that New Zealand First has been trading votes with the parties of the right-wing fringe. In some cases, this is not impossible - although even as applies ACT, I'd suspect that their sudden rise is the result of haemorrhaged National support rather than coming at Winston's personal expense. (This shouldn't be a point of serious doubt, as NZF and ACT are theoretically diametrically opposed on so many core issues ... but who knows what goes through the minds of some ACT supporters some of the time)

Yet what has actually been occurring is that NZ First has been losing votes to Labour. As, to be sure, has just about everybody else. 

And therein lies the rub. 

NZ First's strategy for much of the campaign this year has been to present itself as 'in this government but not of this government'. At Cabinet at least partially to prevent Labour (and the Greens) from Governing in particular areas. The proverbial 'hand-brake' upon our democracy. 

And some of the time, this is a viable stratagem. It is possible that, were circumstances different than they are now, that this would even have been a successful prospect for the party. 

If this were genuinely a 2002 style situation, for example, a weak National would mean that voters distressed about the terrifying specter of a moderate allegedly-left-wing government would be queueing up in droves to support parties perceived as able to 'counter' or at least 'limit' Labour's agenda. Whatever that "agenda" may be perceived to be. It almost does not matter. 

But this is not a 2002 style situation. It's a 2020 style situation. A Time of Endings. And twists in the narrative that keep occurring so we're never quite sure when or where that "Ending" may happen to be. 

As soon as NZ First chose to go with Labour in 2017, it made it exponentially harder for itself to present as being "the outsider" - it was now going to be part of Government. Which makes running *against* the Government quite a difficult proposition to successfully pull off. 

Running *with* the Government as a necessary support partner, however, is quite a different - and, I suspect quite a lot more of a viable - prospect. It's something the Greens are, arguably, doing right at this minute - and reaping the polling rewards of being about three times as popular as NZ First, and over the 5% threshold. In theory - we'll see how things play out on Election Night. 

As I have written about before, from 2014 onwards there was a concerted effort inside NZF to move the whole thing 'rightwards'. I don't say that this was the dominant perception of members - nor even of everybody with an actual decision-making power inside the tent at that time. But some pushed for it, arranged things, and that's in part how NZF wound up moving away from its 2011 positioning to be more 'center' between Labour and National than it had previously been. And thence, where its self-contradictory series of "Bottom Lines" showboating from the 2017 campaign presumably got its start. Attempts to draw in voters from National - a strategy that was doubled down upon once it became more difficult for multiple reasons to get more votes from Labour. 

But in 2020 - there are precious few votes to be garnered from National. They've already all either left (whether for Labour or for ACT), or are battening down the hatches and clinging on for dear life.

So aiming to win (soft) National support by presenting yourself as the vector for Government restraining - is , at the moment at least , somewhere between a losing wicket and a slow hole to nowhere. 

If you like Labour, why would you want to vote for the party that is the self-declared "handbrake" upon Labour governance. If you don't like Labour ... you're probably desperately clinging on for dear life pretending that National's actually somewhere in the mid thirties despite an escalating mound of "ROGUE POLLS" and Goldsmith accounting to the contrary. Or you're a Greens voter. 

The sensible way forward as of several months ago - it's probably too late for this now - would have been to present as the 'elder statesman' party. The one that had productively worked with others to produce a strong and stable response to challenging times. And who had worked overtime in the relevant portfolio sectors (like Foreign Affairs) to help augment rather than undermine the Government's core directives.

Because in large measure ... all of that's actually rather true, and it is a shame that it has been de-emphasized: both by deliberate signalling on the campaign trail, and by some of NZF's high-profile actions while in or around Government (that handbrake thing being quite prominent within them). 

There would have been meaningful 'room for difference' as well to prevent the specter of being 'absorbed' and 'eclipsed' by Labour - a risk, to be sure, for attempting to run 'with' rather than 'against' the dominant party of government.

But looking at the Greens at the moment - who are presently in a rather better position than NZF - we can see that it is possible to support Labour *and* present a vision that goes further than Labour's in important ways which get noticed by voters. Not necessarily *positively* noticed by voters, perhaps, but that's the risk you take. 

It's not impossible that things will change quite rapidly over the next month, and NZF will somehow perform yet another amazing resurrection from what would otherwise be the dying embers of their funeral pyre. I'd certainly like to believe that to be the case - but the *good* NZ First, not the rather obstructivist-obnoxious petty-point-scoring-for-petty-point-scoring's-sake would-rather-be-working-with-the-other-guys-anyway side we've occasionally seen from time to time over the past three years, particularly wearing a quite literally Donald Trump style hat. Like ... literally wearing a Donald Trump style hat. 

Because ultimately - it's been that sort of vibe which has been the problem. I'm not talking about giving a voice to the voiceless - in a democracy, that should *never* be a problem. Although the Public Party is certainly pushing the limits of *that* particular envelope, to be sure. Rather, it's the attempt to forcibly push a centre-right outrage agenda, by generating one - and fatuous windbaggery breathing hard and heavy so it's so difficult to see all the actual, real positive contribution being made. 

It's evident that the 'conventional logic' inside parts of the party is that this strategy should be working - and should be providing just enough difference from Labour to bring in both 'conservative' Labour supporters and National supporters alike. But it isn't. 

And so, the noose is tightening. As it has been, really, all year. NZ First's polling has been progressively tracking downwards for much of this cycle - as, more worryingly, have Winston's Prefered Prime Ministership ratings (which interestingly tend to be a better predictor of the party's support than polling, some of the time). 

So it's running on instinct. Its instinct - at least in some quarters - being to thrash about and ever more dramatically. Just last week we had talk of "bringing down the Government" rather than making use of the "agree to disagree" provisions in the Coalition Agreement. And a range of other previous outbursts that sound more like rival parties on opposite sides of the aisle instead of coalition partners joined at the hip on the Treasury Benches. 

And just as we saw with the mechanism of the snare - in situations wherein the animal thrashes about acting out its instincts , the noose does not leave its limb. Instead, it begins to cut off the blood-flow as it constricts in fairly direct consequence. 

It's probably too late to do anything about that now. 

The only serious question is whether NZ First possesses sufficient strength left in its hindquarters to rip out the snare from its moorings rather than successfully breaking free. 

Maybe, just maybe, its leg (last or otherwise) can still support it yet. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Sanctifying The Sub-Cluster - What Needs Now Happen Following Mt Roskill Evangelical Church Covid-19 Outbreak

Like many New Zealanders, I felt that the news coming through yesterday that some "science-disbelieving" Evangelical church had produced itself a sub-cluster of Covid-19 seemed a cold slap in the face. Hadn't we all worked so hard over first the Level Four lockdown, and then the much more recent Level 3? Who WERE these people to come along, do the wrong thing, apparently potentially deliberately, and thence undermine the Team of Five Million by patching over to Team Virus right as we seemed to be getting things back under control. 

And then I stopped myself, and thought about it a bit. 

The first thing to be said ... was actually put rather more eloquently than I'll likely be able to manage by the relevant Local Board Chair, Julie Fairey. 

In a statement to Twitter yesterday, she said:

"It is looking increasingly like the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship have made some terrible mistakes and are dealing with horrible consequences as a result.  Shaming and blaming doesn't help, in fact it encourages people to hide symptoms and contacts.  Please be kind."

Quite right. You see, our first impulse in scenarios such as these is to reach out and to apportion blame. It makes us feel like we're Doing Something. It gives us back that illusory sensation of 'control'. We fool ourselves into thinking that by reaching out with hard words, harsh words, self-declared "necessary" invectives - that we are shoring up the defences against anything like it ever happening again. 

And occasionally, that is not altogether incorrect. Some people do respond to that measure of 'discipline' and social, peer pressure, and they correct themselves and never do whatever it was ever again. Except in this instance, the idea that one might come in for a heaping helping of opprobrium for just so happening to harbour within one's self the virus ... may be counterproductive. People leap to conclusions, leap down your throat, and provide an active disincentive towards actually coming forward and getting tested - standing up and helping to contain the virus's further spread. 

You may think that I am projecting fantasy - but take a look at how the South Auckland family at the 'ground zero' for the Coolstore cluster were treated. There is no indication that they did ANYTHING wrong - in fact every indication that by coming forward and getting tests done, they saved lives ... and we STILL had a certain swathe of moral outrage brigade pounce upon them to absolutely INSIST that they MUST have bent the rules, broken the rules, sold out the rules for thirty pieces of inequitable silver and/or a one-night romantic liaison into the bargain. 

Our need to 'judge' and to 'condemn', in other words, meant that even those who were absolutely squeaky clean, got put through the wringer - in a way that precious few of us would claim to actually be facilitating people coming forward and Doing The Right Thing in earnest on into the future. 

Now imagine what we'd do to some people - like some of these folks at the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship Church - who may have done the wrong thing in a more active sense. Whether because they genuinely didn't remember a close contact, and therefore allowed a "tentacle" of the virus to slip through the contact-tracing net ... or due to something more (c)overtly intentional. 

The point we absolutely need to remember is that when we're in a mess like this, it's less important pointing fingers as to how we got here and who's responsible for it ... than it is to work together to get out of the situation. Something that can really only be accomplished by working together - and supporting the people we actually DO need to reach in this scenario, to make good choices. For ALL our sakes. 

Although having said that, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't rather angry about all of this. Albeit for somewhat different reasons to most of us, perhaps. 

You see, I am what we could probably describe as a "religious fundamentalist zealot". I am not Christian (although I am given to understand that my immediate forebear, the Reverend Rolinson, may happen to be), but my place of worship is directly adjacent to Mt Roskill - it's where our religious community is perhaps centered. 

And as soon as I saw the news reports around this Evangelical church being at the center of an expanding sub-cluster, apparently because some of its members were ill-disposed toward taking the threat seriously, believing the science, working with the state upon this matter ... I knew exactly how things were going to go. 

Every time something like this happens, various people will go "Aha! The Religious! Always are the problem! Tut-tut!"

Which ignores, of course, all the devoutly religious sorts who aren't, and all the non-religious who are.

Now this does not mean that there is no correlation in some corners of the world between particular strains of religious adherence and ... unhelpful behavior. Certain American mega-churches spring instantly to mind. As do the frankly terrifying reports of the actions and flagrant conspiratorial conduct of the Shincheonji group in South Korea. I mean "conspiratorial" here also in its older Latinate sense - they literally  "breathe together", as well as concealing their membership from the state. 

But here's the thing. Various religious groups behaving badly in these crisis-ridden times are "letting the side down". They're making the rest of us look bad precisely because they loom so large within the public imagination that they block out everybody else who's doing the right thing. My Mandir (Hindu Temple) closed its doors as soon as the Lockdown order went into effect. The Rev. Rolinson has put zealous effort into mastering the intricacies of Zoom so as to continue preaching to his congregations without requiring all his parishioners to be in the same room. 

And I say "making us look bad", "letting the side down", etc. not simply because I am idly concerned about the optics of the situation in an abstract measure. But because these optics, these perceptions have real consequences. If you don't believe me, take the word of Reverend Frank Ritchie

"Just heard of a church that is following the rules, now receiving hate mail from members of the public because of the latest cluster."

That's something happening here, in New Zealand, as of this morning. 

And it's something which may yet have further consequences, also. Because if religious groups start feeling that they're being unfairly singled out and persecuted - some may begin to behave poorly in response. It's not because they're religious - it's because they're human. 

I saw this a few months back with some associates overseas. They saw that in their jurisdictions, religious worship was being severely clamped down upon ... at the same time that Black Lives Matter protests were being allowed to go ahead. They therefore felt that they were being singled out. That there was an anti-religious, or perhaps anti-Christian agenda afoot. And they therefore became rather less than favourably disposed towards the restrictions upon churches and church-gatherings as a result. 

Optics matter. Particularly when it's the compliance of those who may feel harshly singled out that makes or breaks the crisis-response. 

Having said all of that, I don't think it incorrect to acknowledge that there's an occasional correlation of 'conspiratorial thinking' out there in the community with certain groups. 
It's just that the "certain groups" in question aren't necessarily the religious ones. Rather, they're the sorts of people who'd be having an issue with a Labour-led Government etc. whether there was a pandemic or not. 

Or, phrased another way - 

If they were sketchy about "big" government and pro-conspiratorial thinking BEFORE the pandemic ... well, they may be Gerry Brownlee. 

And that's really the crux of it, I feel. 

There are no authentic tenets of Chistian (or, for that matter, Hindu) theology that I am aware of which overtly demand people to frustrate disaster-relief efforts in the course of a pandemic. There are several that seem to cut almost exactly the other way when it comes to enjoining the obeying of secular authorities with reasonable legal instructions. But that's almost immaterial at this point. 

I have long observed that an appreciable amount of Theology-Done-Badly is people basically coming up with excuses to go ahead and do whatever it was they wanted to do anyway. 

The same goes for the anti-religious out there in our society who are, at this juncture, behaving likewise. They're entitled to their views, of course - but I can't help but feel that many of them up in arms about this present situation are seeking to utilize the current Covid-19 sub-cluster to push an anti-religious barrow-and-bandwagon which has precious little to do with the actual realities of the situation. That is to say - what they wanted to do anyway. 

I don't want to end on a harsh note, so I'll simply say this: 

Various figures from the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship Church now appear to be more actively working with the Ministry of Health in order to get the Covid-19 sub-cluster under control. Whatever you may happen to think about their beliefs more generally, I think that that approach of engagement - on both sides - deserves to be applauded. 

Success is not necessarily contingent upon making the right choice all of the time, nor especially making the right choices consistently and to begin with. But rather, it is attained through growing, learning, and making better decisions today and tomorrow than you did yesterday or the day before that. 

And that - with its implicit spirit of 'repentance-of-the-deed' - goes for all of us.

Not just the religious.