Category Archives: Parliament

Which way Winston, and what’s in it for the Greens?

Some quick thoughts off the back of Winston Peters’ comment to a journalist today that the idea of a Labour Green government is a “gross misrepresentation of the NZ political situation”.

What did he mean? Frankly, who knows? Even on the rare occasion that Winston says something in plain language, he still never actually said it according to him. Even when it is published on the New Zealand First website. I have no interest in trying to decipher his intentions from such sparse hints. It is more interesting is to reflect on the bigger picture of the coalition negotiations.

Winston can either go with Labour Greens or with National. Going with National is a risky line to take – and if he does he will be wanting to push the blame onto the Greens as much as possible for being ‘unreasonable’. Even so, NZF was badly damaged after going into coalition with National in 1996 after a campaign indicating that they were going to change the government. It is likely they will be damaged again if he does so now. His election slogan was “Had Enough’. Unless he was talking about himself (and most of us have), this implies an intention to support a Labour-led Government.

In any case, by propping up a last term National Government he will be handing a poisoned chalice to whoever he plans to anoint as successor. Whoever it is will have a hard enough time regardless. Of the two most likely contenders, Shane Jones cannot hide his supreme contempt for anyone who isn’t Shane Jones and is unlikely to have a lasting appeal to voters. I rate Ron Mark as a much better choice, but he doesn’t have anything like the charisma of his boss. If NZF goes with National and then Winston retires, I doubt the party would recover.

On the other hand, if he goes with Labour and elbows the Greens into the position of a support party outside of government, the Greens might end up with more leverage than they have now. The government would still rely on them to pass all its legislation, unless it can get support from National, but the Greens would not be bound by rules of cabinet responsibility. Labour could guarantee to support NZF legislative initiatives but not to pass them. Or it’s own for that matter, unless it ties the Greens into a closer arrangement than confidence and supply.

If the Greens were in a C&S arrangement with the government reliant on them for votes, they would have to use such power carefully and wisely. To be seen to be hamstringing the government would likely provoke a backlash. But what they could do is use the opportunity to strategically carve out a broader support base, by being seen to speak and exercise power on behalf of some new constituencies – ones that disrupt the left / right model of politics that they are currently trapped in.

Finally, it is a shame to see that the small parties are unable to talk together during coalition negotiations (and by all accounts it is Winston that refuses to entertain the possibility). NZF and Greens have plenty in common and no doubt by working strategically together they could achieve far bigger gains for both of them. Divide and rule is an old tactic but I don’t understand why anyone would play that trick on themselves.

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Politics of Green Coalitions – rethinking our strategy and positioning

There is a lot of talk in the media and in the public at the moment about the merits of a National / Green coalition. It is not a new idea but this post-election there seems to be a deliberate and concerted effort to push it.

National, of course, would love to have a second option strengthening their hand with New Zealand First. It is important to understand, though, that this is not just coming from the Nats. People are increasingly concerned about our looming social and environment crisis and some see it as a way to make progress even if we don’t get a change of government.

Let me state clearly at this stage that I do not think James Shaw should be ringing up Bill English to discuss coalition options. To support the National Party to become a 4th term government would be both impossible in practical terms and politically suicidal.

Impossible because any coalition agreement needs ratification by 75% of the party and there is more chance of Winston retiring gracefully from politics.

Suicidal for a multitude of reasons. First, people voted for the Greens on the clear understanding that we would not support a National Government. To do so would be a complete betrayal of our voters, akin to NZ First going with National in 1996 (for which they got badly punished). Second, it might be worth the risk if we could shape the trajectory of an incoming government. To bolster a government almost certainly in its last term, a government that has shown such disregard for both the environment and our growing social inequality, just before their support collapses, would be a tragic mistake. Third, to make such a move without lengthy preparation and discussion inside the party would tear the Greens apart.

Note I did not say ‘because going into coalition with National kills small parties’. Coalitions are always dangerous for small parties but there are many lessons to be learned from the demise of the Alliance and the Māori Party, and from the zombie resurrection that is ACT.

Entering into a coalition with National right now would be a disaster for the Greens and one from which we might not recover. But as I first said in 2008, at some stage in the future we must be prepared to seriously consider the idea.

The tactical negotiating reason is compelling enough, in my view. Labour is currently the only option for the Greens but the same is not true in reverse. Labour doesn’t owe the Greens any favours, and the fact is that Labour will never respect the Greens until we recognise that truth. Rather than expecting a guaranteed relationship with a party that we aggressively target for votes and constantly criticise for not being enough like us, we need to recognise that Labour will give us just as much as they need to, to stay in power. Having an unconditional promise of support means that they don’t have to give us very much at all.

To put that another way, players only respect other players.

But even if the Greens are ourselves content in our current codependency, there is a more fundamental problem. If Greens cannot carve out a constituency beyond the ‘left of Labour’ cul de sac we are in, we will continue to play out the dynamic of this election over and over, soaring in the polls only as long as Labour is doing badly, but dropping back to 5% as soon as Labour turns left again. Or finds a charismatic leader. We may be mighty in opposition, but we will always be puny in coalition until we stop relying on discontented Labour voters for support.

This does not mean giving up our principles. Green politics is, and always has been, as much about social issues as environmental ones. I attended the first Global Greens conference in 2001 when the Global Charter was decided. What struck me was how the pillars of Green politics are essentially the same everywhere – ecological wisdom, social responsibility / economic justice, peace / non-violence, and local decision-making.

The idea that Green should “stick to the environment” is confused. It shows a deep misunderstanding about what Green politics is, what the environment is, and what human beings are. But does a commitment to social responsibility mean the Greens are left of Labour? Or a left-wing party at all? What does it even mean to be ‘left wing’ in Aotearoa New Zealand today?

Some people on the left think being left means you care about other people and being right means you are selfish. Some people on the right think being left means you are economically illiterate and being right means you are clever. It is sadly common in political debates for people to assume that their opponents are either stupid or morally deficient or both. My experience is that most people from either side are neither.

In fact, if you look at the fundamentals, there is very little genuine political difference between National and Labour. What we have now is more in the way of different political clans, held together by a sense of shared identity (often inherited) rather than by any coherent political core. It is in that way that the Greens have become tied to Labour. Not because our principles demand it, but because of a sense of kinship.

Because if you look at the most fundamental Green concerns: climate change, protection of waterways, child poverty, growing inequality, protecting civil and human rights, tāngata whenua rights, the last Labour government was barely more progressive than National. In fact the main argument used against ever forming a coalition with National – that their economic agenda is fundamentally at odds with a Green agenda – applies just as strongly to Labour.

It might be that Labour is more willing to address these fundamental issues than National, but that would require us to play hard-ball in our negotiations. You can’t do that when you have given your bargaining chips to the other side before you begin. Our current position on coalitions guarantees that we can never do more than greenwash a Labour government.

The problem is that we have bought into an inadequate conceptual model of politics that kind-of works in a First Past the Post political environment but which starkly reveals its flaws when confronted with the political diversity of MMP. This is the idea that political philosophy can be represented in one dimension on a straight line between left and right.

A left / right continuum is simply incapable of representing Green politics. Our most defining issues don’t figure on it at all and neither are the solutions to them a simple application of any one ideology, whether ecosocialism or green capitalism. Both the left and the right have valuable contributions to make to this discussion, but more important for the Greens is the opportunity to articulate uniquely Green solutions as the third point in a left / right / green triangle.

If we take ‘left’ to mean a collectivist orientation and ‘right’ to mean an individualist orientation (which is the only definition that seems to make sense) Green politics is not simply about adopting left social policies and applying left ideas to environmental problems. It is a fundamentally different way of understanding those problems, based on an ecological worldview. When we understand how human society operates as an ecology, when we see how ecological principles can be applied to foster a better education system, or health, or in addressing poverty and inequality, then we are able to offer real, green solutions. This is the approach some leading edge thinkers are already taking in economics, in industrial design and in community development and it has the potential to transform our politics as well.

To illustrate: in order to build a more robust support base and grow the vote for a progressive government, the Greens need to stop trying to poach Labour voters and identify new constituencies. There are around 450,000 small businesses in Aotearoa employing 5 people or less. Self employment speaks to core Green ideals of supporting local economies, building self-reliance and personal autonomy, helping people lift themselves out of poverty and fostering stronger linkages between businesses and the social ecological communities in which they are located. I know a great many small business owners who support the ideals of the Greens but who don’t connect with us a party because we are not speaking to them.

There are actually lots of Greens who are small business owners – probably a disproportionate number compared to either National or Labour. Both National and Labour tend to focus on large corporate bureaucracies and play little attention to how their policies impact on small businesses – who as we know are New Zealand’s biggest employer. For years the Greens put loads of effort into trying to woo the unions. It would be worth putting the same effort into understanding how to support a sustainable, resilient and regenerative business ecology. Certainly no one else is doing much in that space.

Escaping our ‘left of Labour’ trap is not about ‘moving to the centre’. The very notion of a centre sitting half-way between Labour and National is irrelevant when we locate ourself on a triangle. Neither is it about ‘abandoning our principles’. Rather it is about embodying them in their entirety. What they cannot mean, though, is relegating ourselves to the periphery of power just because we are committed to giving Labour a free run.

I expect that Labour will always be a preferred coalition partner for the Greens. We share more values with them than we do with National. And I think it will be a while before the Greens are self confident enough to even find out what might be on the table in a coalition discussion with National. Maybe what is on the table would never be enough, but I think that just asking could make all the difference.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Getting our flag off a weetbix box

I cannot believe that I am thinking about voting to keep our current flag. It is a flag that I have loathed for probably 30 years. Its similarity to the Australian flag reminds me of when New Zealand was ruled by New South Wales, and its imagery is redolent with smug colonial arrogance. It reinforces a constitutional fiction – that somehow the sovereignty of New Zealand resides in the Queen, and that she is a font of justice and honour.

But it is possible that the alternatives are worse.

Yesterday the Flag Consideration Panel released its shortlist of four possible options. The first round of voting will decide which of these is the favorite. The winner will then go up against the current flag in the second round of voting. Once you realise that the shortlist was approved by the Cabinet, it all starts to make sense. John Key’s personal favorite is represented twice, in slightly different colour combinations, to make sure that it has double the chance of being chosen. Actually, that design is the only one to have any colour at all. The other two are in monochrome, just in case you didn’t understand which was the right answer.

The prospect of ending up with a flag that looks like it was cut out of a weetbix box seems to have burned off a fair chunk of the dwindling support for a flag change. I have to admit to being highly confused about the Government’s motives in this whole debacle. For people who claim to want to change the flag, they seem to have pretty much destroyed most of the majority support that once existed for doing that. A lot of that would have been on the left and green spectrums I suppose, but I’m sure they must have also irritated a fair chunk of conservative National voters in the process, by even suggesting a change. Amusingly, the process has been so badly designed that they now look likely to lose the vote. Is it too conspiritorial to think they did it to destroy any prospect of a flag change for the next few decades?

I guess so.

Not of course as conspiritorial as the bizarre theory being spread around Facebook, claiming that removing the union jack from our flag will destroy the DUE AUTHORITY of the Crown (I know, I know, its a made-up term) and nullify the Treaty of Waitangi. Apparently this is all necessary so we can sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Why New Zealand would be the only country that needs a flag change to sign a trade deal is beyond me, never mind how the authority of the British Crown or the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi could rely on a flag adopted in 1902.

So what then is the Prime Minister’s motivation? I suspect that its a bit of an ego thing. New Zealand has been orienting away from Europe and towards Asia ever since Britain joined the Eureopean Community and basically told us to get lost, economically speaking. Sooner or later we are going to become an republic and change the flag, not necessarily in that order. It must be a bit of a buzz to be the guy to do it, and I am sure Key holds no great affection for Britain, the Royals or tradition, except where it provides an opportunity for a good selfie.

Actually the best argument against changing the flag that I have read is because it SHOULD be in that order. Removing the symbol of British sovereignty, the argument goes, before we have actually brought our sovereignty home is just shallow tokenism. We should change the flag when we do something constitutionally significant enough to warrant it. I have some sympathy with that idea.

But more than that, I am deeply irritated by not having the chance to vote for anything even close to something I’d want to see fly as New Zealand’s flag. I can happily accept losing a vote to the preferences of my fellow citizens. I do not accept being denied a decent choice by a panel of Government cronies. I am reluctantly thinking that I will vote for the koru in the first round and then vote to keep the current flag in the second round, in the hope that we get another crack at it in a few decades. That’s when I am hoping that we finally start getting serious about ditching the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha family.

Ultimately the whole affair, like the flag choices we have been allowed to choose between, lacks imagination. It should all have been done with on-line voting. Every registered voter could have been provided a log-in to an STV voting website, and allowed to rank as many of the flags on the long-list of 40 (plus the current flag) as they wanted. Voting through public access terminals in libraries and through smart phones at wi-fi hotspots could be made available for those without internet access at home. This would have been highly democratic and also considerably cheaper. It would have given us a flag with majority support. It would have been quick and easy. Finally it would have been a great opportunity to pilot some digital democracy, and start to bring our voting systems into the 21st century.

But then going by past events, I guess that enhancing democracy is not something that interests this Government.

Tagged , ,

My valedictory speech in Parliament 2008

This is the full recording, which disappeared off youtube a while ago. Thanks Ken Spagnolo for helping me track it down

Tagged ,

Civics education workshop outline

This one day workshop explores the nature of citizenship and the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen. It begins by developing a broad understanding of the constitution and then progressively narrows in on the details of Parliament, the select committee process and, finally, voting. It aims to empower participants with a comprehensive understanding of both the formal processes of governance as well as practical tools for influencing change.

The workshop is interactive and uses brainstorming, small group discussion, video and roleplay to draw out the knowledge of participants and build on it. It is suitable for teenagers to adults.

Learning objectives:
Develop an understanding of New Zealand’s formal systems of governance
Develop an understanding of how political processes work in practise
Understand the arguments for and against an adversarial system
Develop the confidence to participate in the democratic process
Develop lobbying skills, including the ability to make effective parliamentary submissions
Develop an understanding of how MMP works and the difference between your two votes

WORKSHOP OUTLINE:

Introductions and Ice-breaker

Talking about the constitution
Sources of political power.
Does New Zealand have a constitution?
What about the Treaty of Waitangi?
Should New Zealand become a republic?

Understanding Parliament
Government, Parliament, Judiciary and the separation of powers.
What does Parliament do?
How laws get made.
How to influence the legislative process.

Focus on Select Committees
What they are.
What they do.
How to make a great submission.

Roleplay a Select Committee process

How MMP works
Why vote?
How voting works
Coalitions and coalition agreements

Tagged

Election 2014 – the aftermath

So election day came and went with very little changing, for all the hubbub. National is a bit stronger, and no doubt emboldened by success. Labour is a bit weaker, and will now be focussed on blame and bloodletting. The Greens are probably feeling in pretty good shape, but are likely puzzled at the apparent drop-off in support on election day – again. It’s hard to say whether it is some unknown systematic polling bias or whether people get cold feet once they get an orange marker in their hand.

More significant are the changes among small parties. The loss of Hone Harawira from Parliament is a major blow and only time will tell whether there is any life left in Mana. If it really intends to be a movement rather than a political party, as its supporters claim, then this might be a blessing in disguise. It is almost impossible for a genuine political movement to coalesce out of a political party, rather than the other way round.

The Maori Party has survived and if it can find a way to heal the deep rift caused by the expulsion of Hone Harawira and make room for mavericks within the party, it may be capable of rebuilding itself. I always thought the best strategy was to keep people like Hone inside the tent, free to say the things the leadership couldn’t say.

ACT was mortally wounded 3 years ago after making John Banks their leader – and that was before the scandals. The party is still alive albeit on an iron lung. It’s hard to imagine David Seymour, or Jamie Whyte as out-of-Parliament leader, making enough impact to lift party support much. The only question is how long National finds it convenient to keep the life support plugged in.

Nothing much changes for New Zealand First, although having Ron Mark back will help it look less like a one-man show. The extra votes that Winston now wields will mean little.

Overall, then, people voted for more of the same and they are going to get it. For progressives, this is a lost opportunity. It means another three years before anyone even begins making the kinds of infrastructural changes needed to become a 21st century nation. It means that at a national level a number of indicators are going to keep getting worse – from poverty levels and inequality gaps to worsening environmental quality and loss of ecological integrity. It means another three years of embarrassment on the international stage, as we continue to drag the chain on climate change and spy on our friends on behalf of the Club of Five. All masked by growth rates that sound adequate but are largely meaningless when it comes to the real state of the economy.

Disappointing but hardly traumatic.

So I was a little taken aback at the outpouring of grief on my Facebook page. Many of my friends and acquaintances seem shell-shocked by the election result. Their responses range from disbelief to anger. It is like looking at a classic Kubler-Ross model of responses to grief. I thought I’d show a diagram so that people can understand the process they are going through and see that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Kubler-Ross-change-curve

Meanwhile, in the interests of retaining a little dignity in defeat, here is my list of three top tips:

Stop telling people they were stupid for voting National (or despicable for exercising their legal right to not vote)

Stop assuming national voters are all selfish and greedy – they may well have voted for National because they simply didn’t believe a Labour Green Government had, or could deliver, the solutions.

Stop saying that you think the election was rigged. The left lost. (This for the more volatile activists)

On the other hand, in the interests of not looking stupid, my advice to all the right wing media commentators is to stop saying that David Cunliffe should have criticised his team, his campaign strategy and himself in his election night speech. There is plenty of time for Labour to look at what it is doing so spectacularly wrong, but election night speeches conceding defeat are for thanking the team for trying, not attacking them for failing to win.

Having said that, there are a few glaring faults that Labour needs to rectify if it wants a shot at leading a Government in three years time.

Labour needs to stop fighting itself and its allies. I won’t go on about the internal self-sabotage because it is so obvious as to be painful, but Labour really needs to learn to play with the other kids. Writing off working with Internet-Mana was stupid. It says that either Labour will probably be unable to form a Government or that, as Hone intimated, they are lying. John Key was not sullied by either the puppy love of Colin Craig or the more bizarre shenanigans of John Banks. He even got away with picking the lock for both Banks and David Seymour to break into the House, without it reflecting badly on him. He just looked pragmatic. Why then did Labout panic over Internet Mana?

The billboard change-outs that said “only a vote for Labour will change the Government” was equally stupid. It was patently untrue for a start. If people thought it was true then the implication was that there was NO WAY that Labour could be the Government since it was polling in the thirties. It was just another sign that Labour had forgotten how to put coalitions together.

There is no doubt that there was media bias in the campaign. The last poll reported in the Herald showed a drop in support for National, but was reported as showing a jump in support, based on some shoddy and invalid statistical manipulation. That sort of media bias needs to be jumped on pretty smartly. Nevertheless the big problem wasn’t the media. It was the campaign.

David Cunliffe did really well when he had the chance. He certainly looked like John Key’s equal in the leaders debates, but that was never going to be enough in the context of a weak campaign that was full of blunders. Apologising for being a man was probably the most ridiculous thing to come out of the mouth of a political leader for some time. Drawing lines in the sand over things like cannabis law reform, which is supported by a majority of the population and his potential allies, was unwise and unnecessary. He could easily have fudged the issue to give himself some room.

Finally, the impact of ‘Dirty Politics’ and Kim Dotcom. I have huge respect for Nicky Hagar and his work but in hindsight, releasing the book during the campaign was too cute. It looked like a stunt. It would have been better for Nicky to have released the book earlier in the season to allow the issues to be investigated and the shine to be taken off Key without leaving himself open to the accusation of trying to hijack the election. Given the careful persona Key has cultivated for so long, people probably needed a bit of time to assimilate the new information. Bringing it out during the campaign seems to have just locked in people’s opinions, for or against Key.

The decision of both Hone Harawira and Laila Harre to link themselves to the Kim Dotcom train was always going to be a high risk gamble. Whatever else you think of Kim Dotcom, it became apparent early on that he is a loose unit with no political sense. The best thing at that stage would have been to kept him well out of the stage lights. I suspect that would have been hard to do. I have no doubt that he is a strong willed guy with a ego to match the size of his bank balance. Nevertheless if Internet Mana wanted to be taken seriously as something other than his toy, he needed to stay in the background. Allowing him to hijack both the launch (by publicly hinting he hacked Slater) and the Moment of Truth (with the email about his personal fight with Key) was unwise.

So, lets look at the silver lining. Lots of people are now motivated to ensure Key doesn’t get a fourth term. This is a good time to harness some of that energy, not for political party work but for building a genuine constituency for change. The thing that will ultimately define the shape of New Zealand is not politicians but the expectations of its citizens. When there is a broad movement for a socially, ecologically and financially regenerative transformation, then the political parties needed to support that will be elected into Government. But be warned – we are a long way from being able to deliver a compelling vision of the future.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,