Wednesday, 27 September 2017

In 1940, the notorious Labour politician, John A. Lee, was expelled from the Labour Party after writing a sensational article, "Psycho-Pathology in Politics", a thinly veiled attack on the dying Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage.

The article's essential argument, drawing on examples from the United States, Britain and New Zealand, was that ailing politicians can have a disproportionate and distortionary impact on the affairs of nations. At the time it was published in late 1939, Savage was dying of cancer, but that had been concealed from the New Zealand public. Indeed, barely two months before Savage's death, Acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser was assuring the country that the Prime Minister "had never been better."

While "Psycho-Pathology in Politics" was a product of its time, one passage within it struck me as having particular relevance today as the our various political leaders seek to put together the next coalition government. Perhaps presciently, Lee referred obliquely to his target this way- "... sycophants pout flattery upon him ... Like a child, he will only play if he gets his own way ... He becomes vain of mind and short of temper, and believes that anyone who crosses his path has demoniac attributes."

Negotiating government formation arrangements is a serious business. It is not an occasion for settling old scores, satisfying particular fantasies, or tails wagging dogs. The starting point has to be a broad agreement that the parties in the negotiation have a similar view about the direction of travel. They may well disagree about priorities, or particular policies, but for the outcome to be sustainable, they have to at least agree they want to travel in the same direction. Governing arrangements thrown together on the convenience of numbers, but an absence of commitment on direction, are doomed to fail.

All of which brings us back to "Psycho-Pathology in Politics". Establishing the various party negotiating teams on the basis of who is least likely to cause offence, rather than policy expertise, smacks of "sycophants (who) pour flattery". At the same time, taking umbrage at apparent negative descriptions has an air of "vain of mind" about it. Worst of all though is the risk the coalition talks focus far less on policy and the country's future direction than a child-like obsession on getting one's own way, and the baubles of office.

On a different note, one of the saddest aspects of the recent election was the general demise of the smaller parties ACT is now a barely relevant toe-hold, and the Maori Party and UnitedFuture have gone altogether. Whatever one's view of these particular parties, they each represented a distinct point of view which will now be heard only faintly in Parliament, or not at all. That is neither a triumph for MMP, nor broader democracy, but it is the will of the people.

Congratulations to all, especially the newcomers, who were elected to the 52nd Parliament. Your enthusiasm as you begin your roles is to be admired, although reality suggests it will be quickly dashed for many of you. Some of you will go on to be great leaders of our country, but many of you will be but short-term visitors. Whatever your fate, I acknowledge your commitment to serve, and wish you well for the next three years. Whether in Government or Opposition, you have a vital and responsible role to play. I hope you can achieve that and rise above what John A. Lee described as the "vanity of old men going downhill."    
  
   
  

 





Wednesday, 13 September 2017

“Time for a Change” is a mantra often used by political parties seeking office to capture what they imagine to be a public mood of the time. Sometimes the call works, and sometimes it does not. The voter, after all, is always right.
 
But political change and renewal are constant processes, regardless of how the political winds may be blowing, There is a steady turnover of politicians in New Zealand, even if our governments do not change that often.
 
The 51st Parliament was dissolved recently for the 2017 General Election. Yet before a vote was cast in that election, or a single result declared, change had already occurred. Twenty-eight of the 121 MPs elected in 2014 – just under 25%  – have either left during the term or declared they would not be seeking re-election, and that is before the electoral grim reaper has cut any swathe at all. And such a turnover is not unusual. Only 54% of the MPs elected to Parliament in 2011 are seeking re-election in 2017. With regard to Ministers, the turnover is just as strong. Of the 25 Ministers appointed to the Helen Clark Government in 1999, only 10 were still in office when that Government fell in 2008. Of John Key’s original 27 Ministers in 2008, a mere one third (9) are seeking re-election this year.
 
The lament is often heard that MPs have been there too long, and that fresh blood is needed. Well, the facts tell a somewhat different story – only 22 of the MPs currently seeking re-election were in Parliament just 10 years ago (and about five of them have been out and in in that time). Just 12 MPs seeking re-election were in Parliament 15 years ago. Should Labour lead the next Government, it will have a steep experience wall to climb as only 6 of its MPS (including 5 former Ministers) were in the last Labour-led Government in 2008. That is not altogether surprising, since over the years since the election of our first Parliament in 1852, the average length of service of an MP in New Zealand has been a little over 6 years.  
 
What these figures also show is that New Zealand voters are quite good at changing their Members of Parliament reasonably frequently, without necessarily changing the government. Indeed, it may well be that because the turnover of Members of Parliament is so steady, and the process of renewal is so constant, the pressure for more frequent changes of government is mitigated to some extent. As the examples of the Clark and Key/English Ministries show, even the turnover of Ministers is substantial over the life of a government.
 
So, whatever the election outcome, the 52nd Parliament to be elected next week will be vastly different from its predecessor. More young people, more women, and more diversity are likely, even before the possibility of changing electoral fortunes is factored in. But, for all that, it will be sobering to realise that it is likely that the majority of our next set of MPs will have served less three terms in Parliament, and that some of them at least may be running the country.        
  
   
 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017


Are we witnessing the death of MMP? It is not beyond the realms of possibility that after this election Parliament may return to the essentially two-party club (with periodic blips) it was for roughly half a century prior to the shift to proportional representation in 1996.

 

If you believe current polling, the Greens will be lucky to be in the next Parliament. There are mounting rumours that ACT’s hold on Epsom may not be that secure, and with New Zealand First hovering just above the 5% threshold, its hold on Northland becomes all the more critical. There must be a strengthening temptation for National to run an all-out campaign to return that seat to the true-blue status it enjoyed for around 70 years prior to the 2015 by-election (save the 1966-69 Social Credit interlude). In so doing, it would also rid itself of a proven destructive coalition partner. In short, of the minor parties, only the Maori Party seems assured of being in Parliament after the election, and, if the election does come down to a drag-race between National and Labour, the Maori Party’s may be too small to add much to the equation anyway.

 

Under this scenario, National would probably emerge the outright winner, once the high waste vote factor has been taken in to account. A single party, majority National Government would be just as dramatic an outcome as the majority Conservative Government David Cameron was able to put together in Britain in 2105 after the years of coalition  with the Liberal Democrats.

 

The probability of this scenario coming depends on the level of voter discontent t with the multiparty governing arrangements we have had since 1996. While there is no obvious sense of voter disenchantment with multiparty governments, it is arguable that this is because in government both the major parties have been blessed with support parties that have not been sufficiently large in size to seriously threaten to derail the government’s agenda. (In this regard, it must be noted that both the formal coalitions established under MMP – National/New Zealand First between 1996-98 and Labour/Alliance from 1999-2002 – failed to last the full three year term, which underlines the point.) Faced with the prospect that either a continuing National-led Government or an incoming Labour-led one may have to rely on either New Zealand First or the Greens to govern, both of whom are likely to be stroppy partners at best, voters may well decide that it is much easier this time to cut out the middle man altogether, and vote directly for the major party they wish to lead the next government. In which case, we will have come full circle from the mood of disillusionment with the so-called elected dictatorship of the Muldoon era and the Fourth Labour government that led to the switch to MMP in the first place.

 

Now, while all this may be an unlikely scenario to pass, it is nonetheless most likely one that will have crossed the minds of National and Labour strategists as they go for broke in the ever tightening race this election has become. After all, the very best way to ensure you can put all your agenda in place without compromise is to be free of partner encumbrances, who might wish to moderate or stop some policies altogether. So, in the context of the desperate surge for absolute victory both sides are now engaged in, Britain’s SAS’s famous motto “Who Dares, Wins” may yet become the mantra that decides who governs next.