Archive for June, 2012

Idiot/Savant over at No Right Turn points out that labour want to be able to advertise on election day. (story) Labour’s general secretary whines that other countries allow it, name-calls the provision banning election-day advertising as “puritanical”, and cites the number of people making last-minute decisions about their vote as a justification.

Actually, this is a good reason to push back advertising even further from election day in favour of other modes of political campaigning. I’d like to see billboard advertising, TV/radio ads, and print/web ads banned a week before, while still allowing the broadcasting of debates, speeches, or other in-person political modes of engagement. That would provide us a much “realer” picture of the campaign, and take the advantage away from big-money parties- then we can have our full shut-off on election day, and drive the sorts of grassroots political engagement that people think they get from electorates.

The Labour Party should be ashamed that one of their own senior members suggested the idea. The time off from the campaign on election day is critical, and to be honest, relieving. It is not puritanical or mean-spirited, it is a chance for everyone who is tired of politics to take a breath of fresh air, make sure they’ve made their final decision, and go and vote.

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There’s been a lot of noise from the right wing in this country that ignoring the family first referendum and going ahead with the §59 repeal is the same as the government of today ignoring the keep our assets campaign and going ahead with the mixed ownership model bill. (which I am now shortening to ‘MOM’)

As promised, here are more than three reasons why that’s rubbish:

  1. The previous referendum didn’t actually address what the bill did, it addressed a strawman of the bill that hasn’t come to life since. No innocent parents are being arrested for symbolic smacks. It was possible to say ‘no’ to the referendum question while still supporting the repeal- in fact, I convinced some people that they actually wanted to vote ‘yes’, to more clearly express their support for the repeal.
  2. It’s unlikely that people will deliberately spoil their ballots en masse to express their disdain for the current referendum question. A significant number of people did so for the previous referendum.
  3. The justification for repealing §59 was never that the public supported it. It was purely on the merits of the policy, and parliament (because the repeal enjoyed broad support of almost all of that parliament, in the end) was okay with owning that decision and going with policy over politics.
  4. One basic democratic ideal is that of continuous consent. We live in a democracy, but the government is trying to claim it doesn’t need continuous consent from the public by claiming that the election was a mandate for asset sales.
  5. Some argue that the public misunderstand the MOM. But all of the public criticism of these asset sales still applies.

To go into each of these a little deeper…

Firstly, the §59 repeal was a very specific bill geared towards removing a defense for the crime of assault, with the aim of making prosecution of serious child abuse easier in cases that went before a jury. If the question were to address the repeal bill, it should have asked “Should we repeal reasonable force as a defense for parents or guardians charged with assaulting children under their care?” It did not aim to prosecute ordinary parents for smacking, whether said smacking was “good” or not.

Secondly, if the question is so atrocious in a referendum that people are protesting it by spoiling their ballots, then something is seriously wrong with it and using it as a justification for anything is spurious at best. I won’t deny it did indicate that there was a lot of ill will about the repeal bill, but that’s okay. The left owned an unpopular decision, and I think it has actually made us a better country for having the debate, as it has reduced tolerance for both outright child abuse, and for corporal punishment.

Thirdly, there are two models for justifying a given policy. You might call them “grass roots” vs “centralised”. National has claimed that asset sales had a mandate, ie. that they were justified from the grass roots. Parliament decided it was going to mandate the §59 repeal itself onto other branches of government, ie. that they were taking centralised authority, and leading public opinion rather than following it. A referendum against the second type of decision doesn’t really influence parliament, wheras a referendum against the first type ought to.

Fourthly, to quote myself earlier,

A political mandate is retained by the support of the voting public. Note that word I used, “retained”? You don’t just get to have one for three years after winning an election, not if you endorse a democratic system which requires continuous consent of the governed to function.

John Key got a mandate to form a government, (which is what your politics 101 text book refers to, but I don’t think you’re a child, so you should already know that passing policies and forming a government are two different things that each require their own mandate to be justified) but there was never a clear display of public support for asset sales, as they weren’t the only issue at play in the election. He’s never obtained one since. This is a dramatic change of national policy that Kiwis have opposed ever since the first time it was hoisted on us, back when Labour was acting like, well, ACT.

You can pass a law without a mandate from below, if you have a good reason to – hence why we disagree that this referendum and the previous one are comparable. This is the reason that common definitions of mandate include a “higher command”- you can have a ‘strong leader’ who decides that they know better than the populace, if they’re willing to sell their idea and own it if it’s a failure. National have wisely not tried that justification for this policy.

We’ve let National choose their own justifications, and we’ve knocked each one they’re actually willing to admit down. Passing this law is undemocratic, it’s economic self-harm, it’s theft from the public, and it’s just plain stupid. I’m not sure what more you could ask for in terms of reasons to stop it.

The government never got a direct mandate for this policy, and it certainly doesn’t have one now, when it proposes to actually put it into action. Polls have always opposed asset sales, but the government said that their popularity meant that people supported them.

Fifthly, the public understand just as well as the government, if not better, what is going on. The problem, from the government’s perspective, anyway, is that people have realised that partial sale is little better than full sale. With partial sale comes the move to a corporate model for SOEs under the MOM, which is the cause of many of our previous issues with asset sales- a corporate-structured entity owned by the government is almost as bad as a corporate-structured entity accountable only to its shareholders. With partial sale comes minority shareholder rights, which means the government does not really retain full control of the company as it claims to- shareholders have legal justification to sue the government if they vote for any action that can’t be justified as increasing profits.

And for bonus points, I’m going to go for the other two defenses of passing this bill that don’t really relate to the referenda. The government attempts to defend the sales by saying they’ll be to kiwi mums and dads, and we’ll try to get them to keep those shares in New Zealand. Well, that’s a load of rubbish. In the sense that the term “mums and dads” is used in politics, it usually refers to median kiwi families. They will buy, at best, a vanishingly small minority of the shares put up for sale. As always, investment will be done, in the large majority, by the investment class with the existing wealth and disposable funds to afford it. Having kiwi millionaires own the shares is little better than having overseas billionaires and multinationals own them- it’s still benefitting people who don’t need more wealth, and who aren’t going to govern these former SOEs in a way that will benefit ordinary people.

Not only that, the government’s only announced plan that could reasonably prevent people from on-selling their shares to wealthy foreign interests, and worsening our cashflow problem, is that they want to offer bonus shares to people who hold on to the current shares. Except- <em>whoops</em>- they don’t have time in Parliament left to pass a law authorising that, and any capital loss (ie. spending that’s not an investment of some type) not authorised by an Act of Parliament is illegal, so they can’t.

The final attempt to defend this dead idea is that the sales will be good for the economy… except they’ll lose the government money in only a few years, the interest rate on our national debt is so low that cutting our way to a surplus doesn’t really do much for the state of our debt, and the higher electricity prices are likely to plunge growth back into the negatives again. So this is a relatively rare case of a bill which has completely no justification.

Remind me why it’s going to pass through parliament, again? Oh, right. Because Peter Dunne wants to be in every government he possibly can. What a great reason for stealing our state-owned power companies from us.

Last election, Labour presented its opposition to asset sales as a contrast. This is typical of the modern NZLP’s centrist approach to politics.

The way you contrast yourself to a painful privatisation agenda is not to simply oppose it. No, you punch your opposition in the face, you take the reverse of their position. You say “You want to talk about ownership of assets? Fine. We’re going to nationalise assets that will perform well as SOEs.”

And if Labour grew a spine, they could do this in a popular and fair way. Announce they’re going to nationalise everything National has sold, and that they’ll only pay people for their shares if they were bought directly through the option. They don’t even have to promise a refund to be fair- hammer the point that these people were trying to steal property they already collectively owned, like uprooting a public drinking fountain, and protesting that you paid rates for it.

But Labour can go still further. You know what else would be better back in public hands? TVNZ. Force a split to the broadcaster- let them keep TV2 and the various commercial-owned channels. Reinstate TV7 as a public service channel, and run TV1 as a cultural/news/documentary/public entertainment channel. Make the governance aim that they attempt to self-fund, and ban them from providing dividends to the government- if they run a profit, they can either save it for when they have higher costs, or reinvest it.

There’s also a good argument for nationalising the telecommunications infrastructure, (hell, we invested in most of it in the first place) nationalising or forcing a buyback* of State insurance, (state-run insurance is almost inevitably cheaper, as it doesn’t need to collect the same profit) making Kiwisaver compulsory in all but exceptional circumstances, and requiring all kiwisaver funds to invest 50% of their assets in New Zealand businesses.

That would be a real conversation about ownership and the state’s role in productive enterprise, and National couldn’t stop it with cheap ads about dancing Cossacks this time- we saw what happened to the economy after they tanked our last attempt to have New Zealanders investing in New Zealand.

But Labour won’t do this, because to push for such a plan yourself is to admit to New Zealand you are no longer wholly a party of the centre, that you believe in some leftist principles, (as opposed to taking a left-leaning slant at centrist principles) and the politics of the NZLP is now firmly rooted in the centre of political discourse. They might do some of these things under the political cover of a coalition partner asking for them, (thank you, Winston. And may I never have to say those three words again) but the current leadership of the Labour party are scared little boys that only know how to compromise and appear “sensible”. I require more than sensible from my government, thank you. I want them to lead.

*I don’t require that we simply “steal” every asset back that was immorally sold in the past, but we can force the owners to accept a fair and reasonable price, rather than being forced into an inflated buyback. National is going to criticise you for paying too much if you do a market buyback, so why pay more when you can get the same business for less money and the same political cost? Also, I don’t accept that the word stealing applies to taking back something that should never have been sold, and that people got for bargain prices and for which they have received more than a full return on their investment.

 

update: You could also run a billboard for people’s hilarious grass-roots mockery of asset sales, like, say, this auction.

So, the recall election in Wisconsin happened, and sadly, it was a complete non-event, with the union-busting, constitution-ignoring republican and his lieutenant-governor both surviving the recall election.

There’s a lesson to be learned here, and it’s one that large progressive (or progressive-sounding) parties almost always need to learn. It’s quite simple: The right might vote if it feels threatened, but the left only votes when they feel hopeful or excited. You can’t tell us you deserve our votes, we require convincing- you need our enthusiastic support in order to turn out the young, disenfranchised, minority, and otherwise new voters that swing elections left. You can’t run a candidate who thinks raising taxes on the undertaxed elite is wrong, who is against prosecuting financial fraud, who doesn’t support campaign finance reform, who is complete centre-right milquetoast, and still feel entitled to win, even against someone as atrocious as Scott Walker.

Part of the problem here is the brokenness of the primary process- it often requires extra money from candidates to win, (pushing the election rightwards) and it also requires an extraordinary effort from voters to engage with. (as you actually have to be present in a room at a certain time to vote in most US primaries) If the Democratic Party agreed not to advertise during primaries and held them by mail ballot, they would have a much more representative candidate in the end. Of course, part of the problem here is that democrats don’t want to represent their constituency, they want to balance that with (or sometimes, ignore it in favour of) courting large corporate donors.

If they had run someone for governor that the recall supporters and the rest of Wisconsin could have supported, instead of trying to “grin and Barrett”, Democrats could have swept walker out of the governorship by turning out new voters. Instead they got the centrists who have been misled by an unprecedented (and in some specific cases, illegal) advertising push to believe that this is a partisan, unjustified recall, rather than a statement that the abuse of law, process, and illegal union-busting of the Walker administration deserves to be cut short.

All the more reason why in any other country, the Democrats would be considered the right-wing party. Watching them try to win elections is incredibly frustrating for all but the furthest left of its candidates, and even then, those democrats aren’t perfect either, and would probably belong in the left wing of the Labour Party in New Zealand.