Archive for the ‘democracy’ Category

For those who know me personally, they usually find this particular opinion of mine surprising. I am a fan of online practically-everything-else. Online games, online food ordering, online shopping in general, online tax, online civil service in general, online insurance, email contacts online, online OIA databases, you name it, I think it’s a reality of modern business and a good thing too.

But I think online voting is a terrible idea, at least at the moment, and possibly inherently, and given that previous paragraph, you should take that opinion all the more seriously, because I would love it if we could square the circle and find a practical way to vote online. I just don’t think it will work.

Why? Well, I’m gonna have to delve into more election nerdery to explain. To start with, there are three critical things to running a good election, that will seem to be contradictory but won’t be once we define them narrowly. They are:

  • Security/Integrity
  • Transparency/Verifiability
  • Secrecy

What do I mean by those three words, and how aren’t transparency and secrecy contradictory requirements? Well because they’re secrecy and transparency of different aspects of an election, namely a secret ballot but a transparent process.

Transparency means you need to be able to tell from the means you use to vote that it will be counted as intended (assuming you actually followed the voting instructions, anyway) if delivered to an honest actor. This is why paper is such a great medium for voting- you mark your ballot, either with a pen or punch machine, and put it into a sealed box so it can’t be spoiled until someone with the key to count it comes along, and it can be secured adequately through purely physical means, and quite easily so. The only people you have to trust are honest are the counters, and they cross-verify, so they’d need to all be part of a conspiracy, or all make a mistake, for them to miscount your vote. Likewise, election officials also need to be able to tell who has voted, not just for statistical research, but also for security purposes. Paper ballots are the best way we currently have to do both of those things at once, especially as you can seperate the metadata part of the ballot from the rest in the counting process so that the people who need to see voter identities to prevent fraud can’t physically go and match that metadata to how a person voted. There is no good way to do that with digital voting. This is sometimes called transparency because for a voter to really be able to understand that any machines involved aren’t fraudulently affecting their votes, they need to actually be able to see and understand how the machine operates, thus the best voting machines are literally translucent so you can watch them doing their thing.

Secrecy, or having a “secret ballot,” refers to a very different part of the process, namely, it means that nobody can prove how you voted, or violate your privacy. The people counting the ballots don’t get to see the database of who voted on which number ballot, and the people who do get to see the metadata about how voters connect to ballots don’t get to see the actual ballots, or if they do, the metadata parts are seperated from the actual vote. The poll workers don’t get to inspect your ballot, but they do get to see that you’re not interfering with other voters, usually through some sort of privacy booth or privacy shield. There are some very narrow situations where it may be arguably better to allow certain voters to cast a non-secret ballot, (for instance, voters who can’t reliably mark a form but trust a friend, family member or carer to assist them) but by-and-large the secret ballot is a critical part of elections.

I’m pretty convinced that it’s fundamentally impossible to marry those two objectives with internet voting, and most approaches also cause issues with integrity. What do I mean by integrity? Well, basically, we should be able to assume that if anyone casts a fraudulent vote through any means, we should be able to easily find out and disregard that vote before a final result is declared, and therefore we should never have to “overturn” the results of an election because we later detect fraud after the fact. In short, the election needs to be secured against vote-tampering, and the public needs to see that it has been secured and have confidence in the measures taken. Some of this security relies on a lack of collusion between other parts of government and the part running the election, but once you have a truly independent election authority, it’s pretty hard to do any sort of mass fraud, so it’s largely down to preventing critical gaming of the election system, or catching people dumb enough to interfere in ways that may not make a significant difference, such as voter impersonation.

There are non-online election methods that don’t rigorously meet these three criteria too, but to my knowledge, most national-level elections in a developed country do, with the exception of the USA, which fails terribly on integrity, mainly due to partisan corruption of their electoral institutions, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

New Zealand has a vote-by-mail system for local elections and sometimes for citizens-initiated referenda. Vote by mail is not secure, and it’s not secret, and it has some other less-critical problems with it, too, but it’s probably the most practical way to hold local elections if we don’t want to synchronize them with national ones.

How is voting by mail insecure? Simple. People can commit the crime of stealing each others’ ballot papers. If they’re smart, they will do so for people who are away at the time of the vote or who are registered but won’t notice the ballot is missing. There is no actual way to tell that the person who filled out and mailed back the ballot is the person who was supposed to vote with it, so voter impersonation, while not a problem in in-person voting, is an unknown unknown in vote-by-mail. I would trust such a system for institutional elections that nobody outside the institution knows about and where there’s no guarantee anyone aware of the election will know anyone else’s address, but that’s about it.

How is voting by mail not secret? Because there’s no observers, partial or impartial, to ensure that nobody looks at your ballot or coerces you into voting a certain way. This means that people are vulnerable to coercion as to how they cast their votes, as for example, an abusive/controlling parent or spouse can verify whether they’ve voted the “correct” way before they mail in their ballot. Technically, any system where you have the ability to match up a person to a ballot is vulnerable to this sort of coercion, even if that proof of how you voted can only be showed after the election has finished- you can still be threatened with future violence, or have your vote bought with rewards or cash, so long as you have some method to 100% demonstrate how you voted. We’ll come back to internet voting after another example of a bad election method.

I mentioned we’d also talk about the insecurity of US voting. The USA relies on voting machines manufactured by partisan businesses to conduct voting in several states. These voting machines run proprietary software, and in many cases voters can’t verify the paper trail themselves before the vote is finalised, or sometimes even at all. They are thus highly vulnerable both to individual voters bypassing their security and hacking them, (there are videos online of how to do it, in fact, for certain models) and of manufacturer tampering to fix the vote for a certain party, which there is some statistical suspicion might have occurred in the last handful of elections. (it was maybe even critical to Trump’s win of certain northeastern states) Anything that tells you on a screen you’ve voted a certain way can be lying to you if you can’t physically see a way to verify otherwise. It can be programmed to switch a selection of votes from the party the manufacturer doesn’t prefer to the one it does.

Basically the only way to secure a machine against provider fraud is to have its software be open source, (and even then, you need to be able to read code to personally verify that your vote is going the right place, and you need to be sure that the open-source code is actually what’s running on the election machines) however doing so means that if there are any technical vulnerabilities, they are incredibly easy to find. That’s okay if you secure the physical machines and they are disconnected from any and all networks, and if any hardware that could be used for vote tampering by officials or by voters is put in plain view rather than part of the booth or behind the shield that voters will use for privacy. The US largely doesn’t take those preventative measures, because the rules are set by whichever political party is currently in charge of the state, (as the constitution highly limits federal election law for some strange reason) and there is thus huge incentive to game the system, as the official responsible for the integrity of voting in the state has no requirement to be non-partisan. (in fact, the Secretaries of State (not to be confused with the federal one, who is the equivalent of a Minister of Foreign Affairs in a New Zealand context, these are like having 50 local CEs of the electoral commission each making different rules) are often overt partisans)

Traditional internet voting based on a single secure database system or network has all the problems of both vote-by-mail and of US voting machines, with the possibility of online hackers who can compromise the system without even bothering to go phishing for passwords added into the mix. (You also have to remember that the possibility for interference opens up to the rest of the world once you put the system online, so you’re making yourself vulnerable to foreign agents who could never set foot on your soil, too) I’m willing to go on record as saying I think it’s logically impossible to secure such a voting apparatus to a level that’s necessary for national elections, especially as the added problem of hacking makes it much more difficult to verify within an acceptable timeframe whether all the relevant information is authentic. (because instead of being to trust all the meta-information you’ve received about what barcode belongs to what vote, it’s possible that such information has been faked. So you can’t rely on the receipts from the system about how many people voted online until it’s been cleared of digital interference, which is a process pretty vulnerable to false negatives)

Some people are proposing blockchain voting systems. Blockchain is the distributed verification technology behind BitCoin and many similar cryptocurrencies, which is basically a protocol for distributed databases. Such systems could be acceptable for non-critical elections, like organisational ones, or maaaaybe local body voting and referenda. The difficult thing is, the ones that I’ve seen that in principle could be secure are fundamentally incompatible with a secret ballot.

Why? Because they rely on distributed ballot databases and a layer of public key/private key cryptography. Effectively, anyone can sign up to the blockchain and they get a copy of the database. Then whenever a change needs to be made, it’s submitted to a certain number of known holders of the database and tagged with the public key that requested the change, and all of those members of the blockchain ensure that they communicate that change to all other members of the blockchain they’re connected to, until it trickles through the distributed network. This means that any attempt to compromise the database has to simultaneously hit the entire blockchain to work, or anyone that they’ve missed will detect an error. That’s very good for security.

And to vote, someone would need to compromise your private key, which you personally control, so on that front you’re actually a little more secure than vote-by-mail, maybe. I’ll come back to this in a second.

However, it also means that some form of public identifier has to be attached to every vote. While that information is theoretically anonymous, in practice it can be tracked back to an individual. Blockchains rely on tracking where information comes from in order to maintain security, and public keys can be traced back to specific IPs and timestamps, which means they can be traced to specific users, which means you no longer have a secret ballot.

Likewise, the ability to use the private key also allows you to demonstrate to anyone watching you vote online who you voted for at the time of the election at a bare minimum, if not afterwards too, and you are also able to deliberately compromise your private key and let someone else vote for you, again opening up voter coercion. Any system where there isn’t a way to verifiably observe people voting in a way that is seperated from observing what they vote for is fundamentally insecure. You could arguably do so through webcams, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that the video data wouldn’t be fake without secure hardware, which defeats the economies-of-scale to online voting.

You could use such a system in contexts where a secret ballot isn’t necessary, such as local direct democracy, or organisational elections. But it’s fundamentally vulnerable to identities being compromised, because it relies on keeping those identities semi-public to secure the vote.

This is without even getting into the non-critical problems with online voting, such as the fact that when there’s not a specific Election Day, people will often forget the deadline and not vote in time. This is a big problem with voting-by-mail, too, which makes online voting actually a problem for turnout rather than a solution when it’s used as the primary voting method rather than in supplement to in-person voting.

Blockchain methods might be suitable for a sort of public-ballot electronic direct democracy on local issues where voter coercion, fraud, or voter harassment aren’t as likely to be problems, but that too has its issues, such as the “self-selecting oligarchy” problem with inclusive, high-volume democracy: that is, it’s so work-intensive to vote on every local issue that only very enthusiastic people tend to show up for it with any regularity, thus those with the time and/or interest tend to form an oligarchy among those who are actually eligible, as they usually hold the majority of votes on any given issue. You can also have the opposite problem of tyrrany of the ambivalent, where people who are only tangentally effected by on issue flood in and force a decision that key stakeholders hate. These are general democratic challenges of course, but electing representatives helps smooth them out a bit, wheras direct democracy is a little more difficult.

So, in conclusion: No to online voting for now, and probably no forever, as I’m pretty sure it’s logically impossible for online voting to hit all three critical points at once, and I am actually a fan of representative democracy. It provides a level of guarantee of human rights, it helps smooth out how democracy functions between the boring issues and the ones of great public interest, and quite frankly, it’s easier to keep democracy slightly at arms lengths from the average voter, so we can keep their powder dry in terms of democratic participation for when it’s really needed, rather than subjecting them to constant voter fatigue.

For those of you not following international news, Scotland is beginning the process of nicely asking the UK government to please let it vote on whether it still wants to be part of the UK, again, please and thankyou. While Scotland can’t really hold a binding vote without the UK saying so, the UK also can’t really claim to legitimately represent Scotland if it refuses a well-founded request for a referendum, and there is a lot of evidence that suggests that the tide may now have turned in favour of Scottish independence from the UK, and its re-admittance into the EU. It’s a bold power-move on the day before Theresa May was expected to trigger Arcticle 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, basically pushing the one-year timer on leaving the EU. It has turned Westminster’s vision of a new, global Britain upside down, and arguably into what it already is: a path that risks the very future of the United Kingdom itself, stoking Scottish nationalism and calls for Irish re-unification. Theresa May, of course, has denied that the timing Nicola Sturgeon wants is practical, and will turn down such a referendum proposal. This of course, puts the onus back on the UK government to outline when they would consent to a referendum, which of course has strategically been kept quiet, because it’s more about trying to bully Scotland into staying than actual concerns around the Brexit negotiation. We’ll see how the showdown between the two works out, but so far I’m scoring it to Scotland overall.

For those who are not aware, I am actually a United Kingdom dual national, and have lived (briefly) in England, but the advantage of living in New Zealand for most of my life is that I can have a degree of understanding of the UK while still being seperate enough to see it from the outside. My position has been that the UK is England-centric, and needs to reform its government on a federal basis with a more representative voting system if it wants to hold on to the other three countries-within-its-country, and that if Scotland really want to be independent they should get their wish. (At which point, I would probably never return to the UK to live even briefly, as it would have gone so far downhill as to hold no appeal- nobody will really like a UK where the Tories have a stranglehold on politics once they’ve experienced it, in my opinion)

The Scottish Nationalist Party (which controls the majority of both the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish seats in the UK Parliament) is coming under some arguably unfair criticism that this is part of a “neverendum,” (ie. continuously polling people on independence referendums until one succeeds and then immediately declaring victory) of trying to set up IndyRef2 to lead to a more winnable IndyRef3, (which is not only stupid tactically, but just plain wrong- that timing argument revolves around the misconception that the Referendum is being proposed before relevant details of the Brexit deal are finalised, when in fact the parts Scotland most strongly objects to have already been determined by a Tory UK government, and the First Minister insists on a finalised Brexit position from the UK before a vote happens) and of simply trying to derail Brexit, to which I’d argue you can’t derail something by desperately searching for a pair of rails to get it back onto.

To understand a bit of what’s going on, we need to rewind a little bit before starting on the current situation, and talk about how the EU ended up a little more complicated than an in-or-out relationship. The UK was a lot more “out” already, pre-Brexit talks, than most European nations get to be. It had a special dispensation from the Eurozone, (the name for the area formed by countries which use the Euro as their currency) which Scotland will not get if it rejoins, and an exemption from the Schengen Agreement, which requires abolition of border controls between participating countries, which Scotland would likely also need to agree to in order to re-join the EU. Instead of Schengen, the Republic of Ireland and the UK are in a special exemption that was known as the “Common travel area,” where they’ve agreed to freedom of movement, but still retain the right to check people’s passports and ensure they’re actually EU nationals before admitting them into the UK. This was considered a reasonable compromise for the island nations at the time freedom of movement was proposed, however now that the EU has a formal agreement under the Lisbon Treaty, any new members have to sign up to being 100% in the EU, rather than getting to pick and choose like those who were part of its formation got to. This situation hasn’t differed from the first independence referendum.

The UK is currently part of the European Economic Area, or “single market,” (the EU’s free-trade zone, essentially, which is actually a little bit wider than just EU members) but the Conservative government aims to leave as part of its “hard Brexit” approach, as it’s not possible to opt out of Freedom of Movement, which it wants to do to control immigration, without also leaving the single market. Prior to the Brexit vote and change of Prime Ministers it necessitated, it was considered a ridiculously hard-line position to propose a hard Brexit, as it would essentially be giving away much of London’s financial services industry, either to Ireland or to continental European nations, and none of the leaders of the Leave campaign wanted to commit precisely to a hard Brexit, maintaining that free trade with Europe was possible while still clawing back those immigration powers. (and in the long term, maybe it will be, but not immediately post-exit)
This is as opposed to a “soft Brexit” approach, which is likely what Cameron expected his opposition to advocate, and what was Nicola Sturgeon’s bottom line for Scotland, where the UK would negotiate an exit deal similar to Norway where it retained some degree of free trade and freedom of movement, but could discard roughly 75% of European laws and access/membership of many European institutions in favour of return of sovereignty to the United Kingdom. (which is why a lot of the Remain campaign insisted that Brexit meant either economic shock or inability to claw back control over immigration policy)Now that we’ve covered a bit of EU basics, we can return to Scottish independence. The first independence referendum was an interesting campaign, that largely failed due to two critical campaigns from the No campaign, which was aggressively backed by English MPs:

    That Scotland would be given new powers and the UK would transition to a “near-federal” model.That Scotland would risk its EU membership if it voted for independence, as there was no procedure set up by the EU for secession within member states granting membership to the new nation.

Post-Brexit, many prominent European leaders have made guarantees to Scotland that if they do achieve independence, they will be welcome back in the EU, so let’s dispense with that second argument already. It’s not relevant, everyone knows Scotland has a place in the EU if it can achieve its independence. In retrospect, claims that Scotland risked its EU membership by becoming independent were effective but erroneous scaremongering.

How went the promise of new powers for Scotland? Well, the UK agreed to take less tax away from the local administration… and then promptly went on to kick Scottish MPs out of votes relating solely to England, (making clear that England views the UK Parliament as an English Parliament, belying again that promise of near-federalism) and then in order to secure its Brexit powers in court, sucessfully argued it didn’t need to get permission from Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland to initiate Brexit, even though the law explicitly required it.

Scotland has been agitating since the Brexit vote for a “soft Brexit,” that is, they don’t want England to wreck the entire UK’s economy in its determination to leave the EU. This isn’t an unreasonable position, although it’s unclear whether a compromise between the two positions of the largely-English UK Government and Scottish assembly is even possible, let alone what it would look like. The UK Parliament in Westminster has, essentially, ignored the Scottish Assembly in Holyrood, and proceeded precisely as it wishes thanks to that fundamentally wrong court decision.

So now we’re back to the independence referendum, and Scotland has a legitimate argument that the promises they were made in order to secure a “No” vote have been violated, that their assumption that “No” secured their place in the European Union is clearly incorrect and their attempts to compromise on a soft Brexit have been ignored, and that frankly public opinion may be changing in favour of independence.

This new case for independence is going to pit re-joining the EU against remaining in Brexit Great Britain. And there are disadvantages to both sides- Great Britain means that Scotland’s remaining oil revenue will likely go to collective UK spending, that Scotland will continue to have minimal impact on UK policy, and will be subject to a much more conservative Westminster Parliament controlling much of its law, and even stealing back powers that Scotland currently has.

But rejoining the EU will mean adopting the Euro, which means that Scotland would be vulnerable to potential future crises like the Greek Debt crisis. It also means that Scotland will have difficult financial problems to solve, as current estimates are that it’s a net beneficiary of UK spending compared to its tax take, and under the EU it is likely to be a net taxpayer rather than receive net subsidies. It will have to deal with the realities of joining the Schengen zone. It may be stuck with a UK Northern Ireland to its west and England to its south if calls for an Irish re-unification don’t eventuate, and there will likely need to be some sort of border procedure with England if Scotland does re-enter the EU, as there is no way that England will accept open borders with a country in the Schengen zone. It will also mean a wait for Scotland to rejoin, as it will have to go through the application process, which will mean that Scotland will need to be prepared for life outside of not only the UK if it votes for independence, but also outside of the EU for at least a few months, or even years. It’s also worth noting that the staunchest opposition to Scotland’s re-admittance, from Spain, seems to have softened now that it’s not being compared to the Catalan situation so much.

Scotland is smart to push for IndyRef2 now, while the Article 50 negotiations on the UK leaving the EU are still in the future. If Westminster shows reluctance to allow a Scottish vote on independence, it’s highly likely that as part of their determination to punish the UK for leaving, leaders who are militantly pro-EU will likely push for guarantees for Scotland and Northern Ireland to be able to determine if they want to split and re-enter the EU, as EU members are pretty adamant that the UK will be choosing between what it would call a “bad deal” or “no deal.”

And unlike the first independence referendum, if this one eventuates, it will be much more difficult to find Scottish organisations willing to front another “No” campaign- Scottish Labour has all but collapsed, and all the promises that helped the “No” campaign out last time won’t be credible after Theresa May’s strongarm position on devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

So, I’m noticing, again, that people aren’t very up on the combination of maths and political speculation that you’ll need to understand who’s likely to form the next government.

Firstly, let’s be clear, there are only three parties parties in Parliament right now who have either clearly commited to who they’ll support or for whom it’s obvious despite the fact nobody’s bothered to ask them. Of course David Seymour/ACT will support National. The Greens have been very clear they have committed to support Labour to change the Government. And Peter Dunne/United Future, while they have worked with Clark’s Labour Party, will of course support National ahead of them given half a chance.

Naturally, Labour and National will lead their respective blocs, so if you’d like to count that, there are five parties who you can safely vote for knowing what sort of government they’d support.

There are a couple of things that are unclear. Mana will of course be more likely to support a Labour government if voted back in to Parliament, however will likely be on the outside of any arrangement if Labour is actually governing, so the uncertainty there is in whether people are willing to forgive Hone for his willingness to work with Kim Dotcom. Given that the Māori Party have stood aside and essentially endorsed him, however, he’s not discountable. I wouldn’t be surprised at either a Mana or Labour win in Te Tai Tokerau.

I won’t speculate on the odds of Dunne losing Ōhāriu at this stage, other than to say both Labour and Peter Dunne need to be taking that electorate deadly seriously, especially as I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a significant chunk of it who are fans of neither of the two likely candidates. They will need to reach out to supporters outside of their usual base to win, which is presumably behind Peter Dunne’s hilarious inability to find fonts that support macrons.

This brings us to the two wildcards. Firstly, the Māori Party, who have said they will make a reasonable attempt to work with whoever’s in government, but haven’t talked at all about what happens if they decide the next government. While they’ve most recently been in a non-coalition support arrangement with the National Party, there’s no real certainty that they would support them over Labour. In fact, the List party they best align with on the issues is the Green Party, so if we’re going purely on policy, they might well support Labour. With Tariana Turia’s retirement from the party, the historical disagreements with Labour could be a lot less of an obstacle to doing a deal. In my models, I’ve assumed they will be open to working with governments of both stripes, but I consider them a reverse UF- in that I slightly suspect they will prefer a Labour government if it’s their choice, although I don’t have any hard evidence to back that speculation.

And then there is New Zealand First, who like the Māori Party, haven’t publicly chosen sides yet, and don’t even have the excuse that they still intend to work with both parties, as they’re currently sitting on the opposition benches, collaborating quite nicely with Labour and the Greens. They look like they’re set up to change the government, but they have pulled a switch on their supporters this way before back in the first MMP government. Have they learned their lessons from that? Nobody knows.

Lastly, there’s a little election system maths to consider. The number of overhang seats will be important in this Parliament, as National will need to win a similar percentage of the Party Vote to last election to stay in power, which was already a bit of an ask with John Key at the helm instead of Bill English. They’ll also want a bit of padding, as no government has ever won a by-election under MMP, so if any of their MPs resign, they’ll likely lose a seat.

If all the minor parties win seats, that’s likely to be three overhang seats in Parliament, meaning the “magic number” becomes 62/122-123, not 61/120-121. There’s also a credible chance of an independent upset in Ilam, which would have the weird effect of not changing the number of seats in Parliament at all, but rather robbing whoever would normally have won the 120th list seat of their extra MP. That’s likely to be either National or the Greens, depending on how close the Greens end up getting on their last MP allocation, or on an outside chance it may be Labour. (it’s highly unlikely to be the Māori Party, as small parties generally get allocated their seats way before the end of the process) For those not aware, essentially there’s a divisor formula that goes through and outputs a number for each party with Party Votes, and every one that’s over the threshold or has an electorate gets thrown into the formula. Whoever’s number is the highest gets the first seat, and then their divisor is recalculated on a less friendly basis, and the next-highest number gets a seat, for 120 iterations. Independent MPs are the only disruption to this process- small parties simply get their electorates as overhangs if they don’t qualify for a list seat on the basis of their Party Vote. While Raf Manji is likely to vaguely support National, he does represent a wildcard in terms of who loses a seat to him, and it’s actually as likely to hit Labour or the Greens in the face as it is to cause disruption to a National government.

What are the important takeaways?

  1. It’s very likely that whoever governs after the election will need 62 seats, as I don’t consider it a serious likelihood that both Dunne and Harawira will lose their electorate votes.
  2. If National wants to govern, they need those 62 seats without the Māori Party or New Zealand First, if at all possible. It’s entirely realistic that the National Party could win 59 seats for themselves but lose the government because they only have two seats worth of solid friends, and both the less predictable parties decide to swing Labour’s direction. Likewise, Labour will want a situation where they can narrow the margin enough that they have a choice between New Zealand First and, say, the Māori and Mana MPs, so that he’s not forced into too much of a pro-nationalist agenda, but such a situation looks rather unlikely at the moment without National seriously dropping the ball, or Little scoring some serious body blows on English that he just hasn’t gotten a chance to do yet.
  3. It’s highly likely that New Zealand First will decide who gets to govern based on current polling, if it holds accurate, and if events don’t shift too fast for our sporadic polling to measure accurately. The chance of National governing without them is pretty slim, although it’s now within the realm of reasonable probability. I expect the recent trend back to National to have arrested with the announcement of Jacinda Ardern as deputy, but we’ll see if that eventuates. I also expected that the dip on English becoming PM would become a trend, and that hasn’t eventuated yet, possibly due to poor capitalisation on his weaknesses on behalf of Andrew Little, but again, this is where Jacinda will actually serve very well as deputy: she’s far more persausive with the emotive argument that the Government is failing people than King was, even though Annette King was a highly effective MP and debater, she doesn’t have Ardern’s charisma.
    1. Relevant to Ardern, it’s rather hilarious that the media is now openly speculating on whether it causes a problem for Labour if she overtakes Little in popularity. The answer is no. That’s a great problem for Labour to have, and it’s likely she would want to do further work before even considering the No. 1 spot in her party, so expect for that to happen at some stage and for Jacinda to endorse Little as leader even when she’s more popular than him. Being the most popular isn’t always a qualification to be leader, and that is why people have to put themselves forward as candidates first. If it’s ever a serious issue, Labour will vote on whether she gets to take over, like you would expect, although of course, they’ll tilt the odds in favour of their caucus’ vote for some bizzarre reason.
  4. If you’re giving your party vote or electorate vote to the Māori Party, you might want more information about what their plan is if they’re in a position to decide if Bill English stays Prime Minister or not. They’ve already said they can work with Labour, but would they prefer to? Nobody knows at this point, and the largely vacuous excuses for political journalists we have atm haven’t got the nuance yet that they need to ask a very specific question about this and see if the answer will change or not. (There are real political journalists out there who absolutely would understand this nuance, but they’re never given the job of interviewing or moderating party leaders for this sort of question in a format that significant numbers of NZers watch)
  5. Pushing for Raf Manji to win Ilam is only particularly relevant if National wins back the government again, and his vote becomes relevant for key legislation. (not that in principle I object to Gerry Brownlee being sent a message, or Christchurch having a bit more power in Parliament, those are good things, it’s just unlikely to move the electoral calculus in favour of changing the Government) It’s actually far more relevant to National whether O’Connor stands a chance of unseating Peter Dunne and whether Hone wins Te Tai Tokerau, as unlike the MP he is unlikely to support the National Party.
  6. As before, Preferred Prime Minister is a huge irrelevancy in polling and deserves to be replaced with favourable/unfavourable polling for the PM and the Leader of the Opposition, as the open-ended nature of the question prevents it from being useful as a gauge of whether the leader is an actual drag on either of the biggest two parties, and the lack of data as to whether it has any impact at all on the Party Vote means that experimenting with different metrics is a great idea, in case anyone who actually polls is listening.

So if you’ve been hiding under a hole until recently, Bill English let slip in an interview recently that he wasn’t going to renew John Key’s pledge on not touching superannuation, then, like Labour, went and made it an election issue by announcing he would, in 2040, raise the retirement age by two years. I had meant to get to this issue sooner but have been sidetracked with other priorities.

There are so many sides to this. The first is, Bill English has literally set the cut off for when people should retire with the generation that has borne the brunt of increasing inter-generational warfare waged on behalf of (although not necessarily with the consent of all) Baby Boomers. Gen X, the generation that paid the first student loans, and did it with interest, is being told they’re the ones who will be asked to cut costs if National can govern without a coalition.

First, let’s be real here: while superannuation is less of the national budget in New Zealand than it is overseas, (per capita we spend about half as much as say, European countries do, and get a better system out of it) there’s still a very real affordability problem if we want to maintain government spending in other areas once the Boomers hit super age en masse. (some already qualify, but the real big hit is yet to come) Nobody, even the two parties who were consistent in wanting to maintain super at 65 for the general population, (That’s the Greens and New Zealand First, if you’re curious) is arguing with that fact.

If we’re going to maintain super, we need to look at the revenue side of the equation. Remember how I proposed a solution in search of a problem back when I said we should tax the wealthy? A comprehensive capital gains tax would more than fund Super, in fact, it would go a long way to funding a UBI1. Julie Anne Genter literally has very similar opinions on this issue.

If we take the revenue steps we need to anyway to ensure a more equal society, we can easily afford super, and we can do so off wealth taxes that will effectively act as a means test without all the administrative costs, as wealthy boomers who don’t need Super might well end up paying more in taxes than they receive anyway, but we still receive the benefits of universality in terms of ease of access, reduction to poverty, and incentive to continue working for those who genuinely wish to and are able to.

There is absolutely no need to start a generational war like Bill English has in order to solve that problem when the gap is clearly on the revenue side. Labour’s answer, squirreling away surplus money, is a good thing to do in principle, but there’s no indication it will make a serious dent in the cost. National’s argument that Gen X will still get Super for a longer percentage of their life than Baby Boomers currently do might be a fair one, if it were taken completely outside the generational context it deserved to be placed in. Gen X, and to a larger extent, Millenials and the upcoming Gen Z, are being asked to bear increasing costs on basically everything, coupled with decreasing opportunities and being left political problems that have been dumped in the “too hard” basket for decades, like climate change. This super announcement is one too many kicks in the ribs, and National better hope it doesn’t mobilise younger voters who’ve stayed home, because they are big Green supporters, and a 20% boost to turnout of the youth vote would literally change the electoral maths on this issue.

Politics aside, if we can square those financial challenges away with a bit of a surplus, we should also be considering the points made by the Māori and Mana parties about equity of Super, and their support for some level of flexi super, and/or some reduction to the age of eligibility for Māori and/or people in taxing manual employment. These are absolutely fair ideas that deserve consideration. Let manual workers who struggle to make it to 65 have a bit of super. If there’s any argument to raise the age, it’s so we can afford to let manual labourers and Māori have an equitable piece of the super pie.

Overall, I hope voters will stand together in the coming election and realise that there isn’t a need for this divisive type of politics. We can keep super at its current settings without sacrificing our other spending priorities if we tax the wealthy more fairly, but that will never happen under a National government.

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Or maybe there are?

If you’re on New Zealand Twitter, you’ve probably already been following this story. If not, a bunch of Auckland University students have decided to form a “European Students Association,” which they are currently saying is open to people of all backgrounds to celebrate european culture and cuisine, and they plan to host “historical re-enactments” and “european feasts.” I won’t link them directly for reasons hopefully obvious, but Newshub has some surprisingly nuanced coverage on this.

You may have noted I said “currently saying.” Until recently, their online presence on Facebook was a full-blown example of cryptofascism. It featured subtly altered Nazi quotes, a Celtic logo complete with swords and a quasi-nazi slogan which also fits the cryptofascist profile, and pictures glorifying the idea of German empire. Since they caught media attention, they have scrubbed their facebook presence and now only sport a Celtic logo without swords. One, or maybe two of these things could reasonably be a mistake. (or you know, a genuine interest in Celtic art or German history) Four of these things together implies that someone in this organisation either thinks Nazism isn’t something to be taken seriously, (in which case they’re in trouble with actual fascists as well as with everyone else) or is actually a secret supporter of white nationalism or some other flavour of eliminationism, and perhaps was trying to signal to others that the organisation would be a front for white nationalism.

The Herald identifies one of their spokespeople as Adam Holland, and the group has contested that he is not a member, (as you would expect from a former “mayoral candidate,” being generous to Adam) but have not denied he was an authorised spokesperson for them, and have not required any corrections to be published. Adam is a known troll, which suggests it’s possible that this group started off as some sort of joke. Evasions from their spokespeople on key issues that would upset a genuine club seem to indicate that the group is intending to troll people, either as some sort of joke, or because they think they can stir up some threats against themselves and use that as some sort of propaganda win.

However the group being agitators wouldn’t mean there’s no reason to take it seriously, as even disorganised groups that are out to troll the public can still give serious fascists a chance to meet up and organise, and feel normal, and there are a surprising number of people supporting these idiots. Letting this sort of thing go on and protecting people’s right to preach eliminationism using private resources to build themselves a platform is irresponsible and unjust, and the prevalence of such underground groups organising through secret or just obscure means and fringe websites are precisely what led to Breitbart news, and Steve Bannon, and ultimately the white nationalist support for Donald Trump, and his support in return for white nationalism. You can still support freedom of thought and freedom of ideas while requiring all student groups to have a non-discriminatory purpose, to have no links to hate groups, and not to use known imagery of hate groups. That is a standard exception clause to free speech rights in private institutions, and it’s basically the least you can do to prevent a white nationalist movement taking over.

There is not as mature an organisation of white nationalism in New Zealand, but the attitudes and thoughts that led to it are still here, (colonialism is just another flavour of white supremacy, sadly, and we’re still working on getting to a post-colonial society that values Māori as the indigenous people of New Zealand, and any other recent immigrants as just as valuable as Pakeha. And we have a mature nationalist political party already, so all we need is that nationalism and that white supremacy to mix, and suddenly you have neo nazis in the Pacific) and we need to take the possibility of it being normalised seriously, even when it’s disorganised people who may or may not be trying to have a bit of a joke.

Auckland University has defended itself partly by saying it had recently changed its policy to allow groups to recruit during orientation week before going through their formal process and submitting member lists, which is a reasonable excuse for why this group was allowed to openly recruit during orientation. But that’s the past, what are they saying about the future?

Well, they have stepped into a classic trap of saying they have “no proof” that this group is racist. A confluence of circumstantial evidence is all you ever get when you’re dealing with cryptofascists. Their entire strategy is to play a game of piggy-in-the-middle with accusations against them, where they can maintain plausible deniability if anyone decodes their references to eliminationism or white supremacy, because they try to keep it low-key enough that there is never any substantial proof, which means you have to overreact at least slightly to catch them, and you need to require people to have a good explanation for circumstantial evidence, something that’s counter-intuitive to liberal sensibilities, but is a prerequisite to being an effective liberal in a society with proto-fascist movements. It needs to be very clear that any white supremacy on private property or in public spaces will result in an over-reaction. Nobody will admit to being a Nazi until the Nazis have already reached a critical threshold, a fact that University lecturers surely know, and it’s surprising that the relevant decision-makers haven’t listened to them. In contrast, their Students Association has actually been really good on this issue, and deserves a lot of credit for understanding the nuance correctly.

It is possible, of course, that some people involved in this group really believed the cover story. But at least one person was either joking in a thoroughly inappropriate way about Nazi content, or was serious about it but knew enough to try not to be completely obvious. If the group wants to continue without this stigma, all they need to do is remove the people who made that mistake from the group, and notify the University authorities who they were so that they can be watched to prevent other inappropriate behaviour in the future without risking  any retaliatory action from overenthusiastic anti-fascists.

It’s bad enough that we have an anglo-centric nationalist party in Parliament, but we cannot have that kind of pop patriotism that buoys New Zealand First and similar social conservative movements turning to the dark side on us in New Zealand. Everyone, right, left, centre, or otherwise, needs to be clear that there’s no place for fascists in New Zealand.

As to whether it’s appropriate to celebrate European culture, of course it is, with the caveat that it has to be legitimately about the culture of all of europe, not just the white parts. (Most white nationalists are interested chiefly in British, Germanic, or Russian cultures. If they branch out into Iberian culture, France, and eastern europe as well, that’s a good sign) If that was legitimately their aim, firstly, they picked a stupid name, and secondly, they should have approached lecturers on various european culture courses to advise them, who would have then been able to substantiate their claims that they were legitimate. Tertiary culture courses do a very good job of digging deep into culture, far deeper than most cultural clubs or associations have a chance to get in their public events, so anyone serious about that goal should have been thinking about using their resources better.

It’s also worth noting that “European culture” is a group culture, the same way “African culture” is. It’s really dozens of different cultures. New Zealand has about four prominent European feeder cultures to our own modern hybrid euro-polynesian melting pot culture, so the first thing to know is that most kiwis already live European culture to some degree, as our culture is largely pieced together from English settler traditions and elements of Māori language and tikanga that have been assimilated, but still notably contains elements of Irish and Scottish culture, especially in the South Island, and even some Germanic influences in certain places and institutions. There is amazing art, (performance or otherwise) literature, and film from all of those cultures.

It’s perfectly reasonable to be proud of those things, but that’s very different from glorifying past empires who committed atrocities and whose time is over, and it’s also different from trying to exclude or hate other groups, which is often what “white pride” or “European pride” is a code word for, and a precursor step to calling for forced migration, at which point we’ve then arrived at eliminationism. Even now, some people reacting to the news are mentioning several of these code words, and this is precisely the point of cryptofascism: nobody can tell if their supporters are actual fascists, or just people who are legitimately proud of their European descent, and that confusion is why we have to push back so hard against this sort of behaviour.

Update: So, despite writing this last night and scheduling it for this morning in case sleep elucidated anything, it looks like there’s already a resolution. The Herald reports that the AUESA is going to disband. Good. This reinforces my perception that they were trolls who picked a culture battle they didn’t know they weren’t going to win, because people were ready for them.

They claim to have been threatened with violence: if that’s true, (and I admit to some skepticism that it is, given that fearing for your own safety is a great excuse to back down from failure anonymously, and we still only have rumours about who the people behind this group were) please don’t threaten violence on fascists unnecessarily. These were not powerful fascists who were putting people in imminent risk who arguably justified symbolic resistance or an actual life-or-death struggle like actual Nazis did. These were not influential media figures who need to be stood up to. They were just as likely to have been defeated with criticism, mockery, and general social disapproval, as they were a bunch of disorganised jokers. If every cryptofascist were this easy to stop, we wouldn’t be bothering to debate about the ethics of punching nazis, and it wouldn’t be as serious an issue as it is. Peaceful resistance is an effective tool and it should always be the first resort.

That said, this will no doubt be the point at which some troll says “liberals are as bad as what they claim to be against, they’re racist against Europeans, and they want to take away our freedom to speak about fascism.” Anyone who seriously thinks that needs to crack a book. You can’t be racist against white people, or “Europeans,” because racism requires bigotry and institutional power set against you. Most institutional power is set up to support people like me. And you’ll notice, all anyone was calling for was the university not to register a simple club. Nobody’s actually gagging fascists, but you better believe there will be real consequences to free speech, because free speech only protects you from the government, and most private institutions don’t want any white nationalism getting on them if they can help it, especially not when ordinary people notice it and call it out.

This does reinforce my belief that the old advice to “not feed the trolls” is at best outdated, if it did ever work outside a particularly narrow context of certain types of attention-seekers in small, tight-nit communities back when most internet was dialup. Oh look, we stirred up a lot of media attention… and the trolls couldn’t withstand its withering gaze. It’s almost as if the threat of being held accountable in real life for their behaviour actually discourages them, right?

The people behind this group are continuing to pretend they did not engage in unacceptably cryptofascist behaviour, and/or fail to bring it to account. They’re asking us not to believe our “lying eyes.” They provided no credible explanation for the content they posted, took no responsibility for excluding the responsible party or safely reporting them to the university, issued no apology, and evaded or dodged every criticism they could in engaging with the public or media on the issue, never having a substantive discussion about how four separate pieces of cryptofascist imagery ended up on their page by “misunderstanding,” when there have been claims from people that they know the artist for their logo, who is, surprise surprise, connected to Adam Holland. I have little doubt they are simply playing for sympathy either to make this die down or try and build momentum for another group later. Please have your scorn ready for anything these idiots try in the future.

Bill English has announced he will instruct the Governor General to hold the next general election on September 23rd.

It’s worth quickly pointing out that it is utterly bizzare that the Prime Minister gets to control the election date in any way other than their government falling down. I sincerely hope that the next government, whoever it is, will pass a law that gives us a fixed date for general elections, and preferably make it a public holiday rather than simply setting it on a weekend. (because it drives turnout when people don’t have to ask for time off to vote, and many people do work on weekends. Besides, getting a holiday the years we don’t vote will actually, you know, give people an incentive to enjoy election day when it does happen, and not feel like it’s a chore)

There were the usual noises from a Government declining in popularity that it’s “untrue that we don’t not dislike New Zealand First,” as Bill English may need to suck up to Winston to make his coalition numbers. This is an advantage the Opposition gets because they’re not as likely to be asked about coalition composition unless polling indicates they’re looking very likely to unseat the Government, and the last polls were a statistical tie between the three relevant outcomes: Labour and the Greens decide who govern, National decides who governs, and New Zealand First decides who governs. We can all only hope that it’s one of the first two, as we don’t need our own take on white nationalists getting more negotiating power in the era of Trump.

The responses to the announcement sound confident from everyone. It’s anyone’s game at this sage, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see a trend start up in the next political poll, which we should probably expect to be published within a week or two, but that concession to New Zealand First should probably be seen as a sign that Bill English is not as optimistic about his internal polling as Labour and the Greens are.

How’s that for a title, huh? The new Trump administration in the US is making it very clear that the US is up against a (proto)fascist regime 1, as its very first actions have teed up a conflict between the judicial and executive branches, with Customs and Border Control going rogue in favour of the President, ignoring legitimate court orders based on internal instructions to comply with the President’s agenda, and mass protests assembling at airports in solidarity with immigrants who, in many cases, just want to return to their lives in the the US, or escape persecution.

The only time you get to ignore a court order in a well-constituted democracy is when a higher court contradicts it, so anyone at the US CBP who’s refusing to follow those court orders after being informed of them is actually breaking the law. The ACLU is going through heroic efforts to try and legally represent anyone impacted by this new executive order, however many are being illegally denied access to counsel. This is not the sort of story you expect to hear from a democratic nation, and of course, it’s made even worse by Trump firing his acting Attorney-General, a rare holdover from the Obama administration who took the logical step of advising the justice department not to defend the executive order, as it wasn’t legally defensible and its resources were better spent elsewhere. This of course put her in the nearly unprecedented position of publicly disagreeing with the White House, so her dismissal is understandable if wrong.

In the middle of this mess, we still have some well-intentioned conservatives, moderates, and even left-wing advocates of non-violence objecting to punching a Nazi, a debate which is at best, a distraction. Let’s get it over with so we can move on to things that matter.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not my preferred tactic to punch anyone. But people are forgetting the extreme measures we went to in the Entnazifizierung (eng: denazification, usually of Germany) and that resistance against a regime employing the tactics of fascism might require several different approaches, some of which are distasteful concessions to the weaknesses inherent in a democratic system2. I maintain my stance that non-violent action is effective, ethical, and normally sufficient, and that if illegal action is required in protest it should be with the intention of getting arrested. However, there are reasons for violent action that go beyond appealing to moderates, which is largely what modern democratic protest is about. If I was given a definite choice between punching a Nazi in the face and facing a new fascist regime, you can bet I would be masking up and punching me a Nazi. (naturally, the real world is a little more complicated than that, and I have no immediate intention to go off punching anyone, as I don’t actually know that it’s necessary or sufficient to stop fascism, and fortunately, it looks not to be on the export into New Zealand just yet) The person who did punch Richard Spencer no doubt had legitimate objectives that have arguably been met by doing so: to intimidate neo-fascists, to motivate people opposed to them, to send the message that their policies of deportation aren’t viewed universally as non-violent, to act as a symbol of resistance, and so on. There is an argument that those type of tactics may be necessary against people setting up actual fascist regimes like Trump.

While I wouldn’t do it myself, I can’t condemn someone for punching a Nazi, and I think it’s an astounding display of lack of perspective as to the how much of a threat even muted whisperings of forced relocation (merely a more mild form of eliminationism, an ideology that has never met a genocide it didn’t like) that are going on within the new white nationalist wing of the Republican Party. Add to that influential advisors in the new administration such as Bannon and Sessions having close ties to white nationalism, and I’m frankly shocked that people don’t view punching nazis as an under-reaction, and for those who are still outraged at the idea of violence against Nazis, I hope you’re very regretful about World War 2, and pretty much any movies set between 1920 and 1945.

Let’s rewind back to post-war Germany, which was occupied in four zones by the UK, US, Soviets, and French. Freedom of association in post-war Germany was gone. The Nazi party was disassembled, and people were questioned about their support of the party, and put on trial based on its membership list once it was recovered. Imagine for a moment that the Republican Party were banned in the USA and understand what a cultural shock that would be and an enormous task it was. Merely being a member of the party prior to Hitler’s rise to power automatically made you a a suspect. Imagine if voting for Trump in the US primaries were a crime for a second, and compare the scale of that to punching one alt-right neo nazi in the face.The task was so big that in the American zone, young people as a category were exempted under the rationale that they had been indoctrinated. The French didn’t bring people to court because they essentially considered the entire country guilty anyway, so they focused on specific high crimes, but they still had to fire a huge numbers of teachers due to their role in indoctrinating young people, so many they had to let some back on probation to cover all the vacancies.

Denazification was considered so necessary that it went on even in countries occupied by the Germans, not just Germany itself.

Even after denazification ended, (it was viewed as an overreaction by the new West German government composed of the non-soviet zones) several people were banned from working for the government in the future, and the new German constitution in place today gives the ability to ban political parties to their federal constitutional court. Imagine for a moment if the next President of the US had to amend the US constitution to allow the Supreme Court to ban political parties because nazis undermined democracy that much in the US. That is the level of threat they are legitimately facing right now.

I don’t say this in support of these measures, but rather to give us context: One person punching another in the face over this will be us getting off easy. Fascist regimes have ended up much worse, and while I’m heartened by the existing non-violent acts of resistance, I would not be surprised if violence ends up being viewed by Americans as necessary to prevent the worst of what Trump may have in store for the US. And of course that’s regrettable because assault is a crime. But it may have been the morally correct thing to do. Or the politically necessary thing. So we should stop wasting time having an actual debate about whether minor acts of violence to prevent genocide is morally excusable, because of course they are. Preventing fascism by opposing confirmed nazis is pretty much a moral duty, and it’s difficult to over-react to an imperative like that.

I honestly can’t say for sure whether violence will be necessary to stop American fascism. I know there are non-violent ways to do it. I don’t know how effective they will be. (In an ideal world, non-violent activism can solve any political problem. However, the US has in many ways been trending away from those ideals that empower non-violence, and it will be a matter of effective messaging and resistance to make progress. I will be thrilled, of course, if they can resist fascism without hurting anyone) But I do know hand-wringing over vigorous opposition to fascism is stupid.

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