Speaker by Various Artists


The overconfidence man

by Rob Salmond

John Key has given a big interview to the NBR (paywalled, so no link) about how he sees the 2017 election shaping up. NBR called it “The Confidence Man.” Key’s right about some stuff, and off the planet about some other stuff.

First, Key says National is toast if it just bumbles on:

If we don’t continue reinventing ourselves with new policies and new ways of doing things, a refreshed mandate, if you like … [voters] get to 2017 and they will say ‘well you’ve run your race, you were there to do a certain thing for us and you’ve done it.

I think Key is right about this. Absent big new ideas, National will struggle to win a fourth term. What would the fourth term be for? In fact, the non-partisan people I’ve spoken to are already drawing parallels between Key’s third term and Clark’s. That term didn’t end too well for her.

Their problem is that the big new ideas they’ve been trying in the last while have been spectacular failures. Upping the benefit rates was a good idea, to be sure, but it has since been drowned in negative publicity about the folly of “creative solutions” from Smith, McCully, Bridges, and others.

Even though the votes aren’t massively shifting yet (more on that in a moment), the public mood is turning against National because of perceived inaction on the big issues facing New Zealanders. Top of mind in Auckland is housing, not just among people looking to buy, but among the parents and grandparents as well.

In fact, I’m willing to bet the reason Key gave this interview is that he saw that feedback in his own focus groups, and is signaling a change in approach. I’d politely suggest he’d need some change in personnel to achieve that.

Second, he thinks leadership won’t play much of a role in the election:

It won’t be because Andrew Little has done something amazing or because I’ve done another dumb thing.

I’d say this is overstated. The gradual accumulation of dumb things Key has done probably won’t cost them the election by themselves, but they will reduce the personality-based boost Key provides to National’s vote in 2017, compared to previous years.

Third, Key says Labour’s plan is to sleepwalk to victory:

Labour’s strategy is really clear. It is a deliberate strategy of doing and saying nothing. Their whole analysis is, this is a third term National government – third term governments never last – and if they do nothing, stay out of trouble, they will inherit the Treasury benches by default.

Key’s claim here is, of course, complete nonsense, and I don’t for a moment think this is Key’s actual view. He knows that Andrew Little’s favourability rating is tracking well, even if – like all new opposition leaders – he has some way to run before he’s as well known as the incumbent PM. He knows Labour’s major announcements are proving more popular than his, especially this month in the housing space. And he suspects (rightly) that we’ll announce plenty more good policy before election time.

Key doesn’t actually believe Labour is in do-nothing mode – he just wants the public to believe that. Hence the interview.

Labour got 25% in the last election, and it would be a completely foolish party that thinks it could sleepwalk from their worst result in 80 years direct to victory. Labour’s top table believes nothing of the sort, which is why the party is reaching out to small business like never before, taking on the challenge of thinking about how work around the world is changing and what it means for us, and so on..

In fact, we’ve also done the numbers on third term governments in New Zealand. There have been five in the modern era (under Fraser, Holyoake, Muldoon, Bolger / Shipley, and Clark respectively). Two of the five got a fourth term. So we think the history gives National almost even money of getting a fourth term, given they’ve already won a third term, and we’re determined to work our guts out to make sure that doesn’t happen.

For me, I expect Key will ditch his underperforming Ministers, copy as many of Labour’s ideas as he can get away with, and go into the election with a new, refreshed team proposing big ideas for New Zealand’s new issues. That, and everything bad under the sun will have been caused in 2007, not 2009 or 2011 or 2013 or 2015.

Labour, and the broader left, will really have its work cut out for it. If the left wants to win, they’ll have to think hard, and work harder. 


Gay marriage, weed, and death with dignity

by Rob Salmond

As readers know, over the weekend the US Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage the law of the land across all 50 States. Even the States that had expressly changed their State Constitution to limit marriage to one man / one woman, have had their minds changed for them.

This is, of course, huge news in its own right, and will undoubtedly reignite the “culture wars” angle of American politics in the Republican primary. Already, Jeb Bush is running with “That sucks, but let’s move on,” while others are reaching for the pitchforks.

To me, what is most interesting about this change in the US is how quickly the country went from its first law permitting same-sex marriage (2004, in Massachusetts), to a majority of States first acting to ban same-sex marriage, then after 2012 a majority of States moving to allow it (36 by last week), to Federal action to codify the new legal norm. Having all that happen within eleven years is very short, compared to some other episodes of social reform in American history.

Via my earlier post at Polity, the boffins at Bloomberg showed a few weeks ago that the time from the first State permitting something to Federal action was often much longer. For example:

  • Almost two hundred years passed between the first State legalising interracial marriage, and Federal action to allow it nationwide.
  • Over seventy years went by when the first State banned alcohol to Federal prohibition in 1920.
  • It took about thirty years to go from female suffrage in one state to female suffrage everywhere.

The major social change that looks most like same-sex marriage, in terms of timing, is abortion. Colorado legalised abortion in limited circumstances in 1967, and by 1973 it was legal nationwide after Roe v Wade.

One of the things that has made abortion reform so long-term controversial in the US is that the Supreme Court acted early, with only a few States allowing it and without really strong public support.

Is that status as a permanent schism in American politics likely to befall same-sex marriage, given it also had a short timeframe from first State action to Federal action? I don’t think so, for two reasons:

  1. Public opinion on same-sex marriage has moved quickly, and moved ahead of the Court. Via 538, polling now routinely finds 55-60% of Americans favouring same-sex marriage in the US, up from around 30% just ten years ago.
  2. A majority of the States had already allowed same-sex marriage before the US Supreme Court acted. This is very different from abortion, where only around a third of States had acted pre-Court.

My prediction on this is that there will be some Republican wailing and gnashing-of-teeth this Republican primary cycle, then the eventual nominee will choose not to make it a big deal in the general election because, you know, 60% like the change – probably more by then. After that, the issue will die away as god-fearing conservatives find that the fabulous weddings don’t actually undo the dour ones.

Let’s say we have an “anec-model” that permissive social change in the US probably requires majority public support and majority State backing before the Supreme Court can make Federal action stick. What, then, would that say about prospects for marijuana reform and for death with dignity laws?

Marijuana: Only four States have completely legalized it at this point, although 23 States have done so for medicinal purposes. Public opinion sits on a 50-50 knife-edge. If the Court found grounds to act on marijuana now, it wouldn’t quite meet our twin tests, and so could dissolve into a bun-fight. Advocates need to both convince more State legislatures or Courts to act, and also increase public support.

Death with dignity: Oregon passed the first US death with dignity Act in 1997. Since then another two states have followed suit, although there are some within-state differences in a couple more States, and others now reviewing their laws, notably California. Public opinion, however, is strong and consistent. Gallup reports that public support for physician-assisted dying has hovered around 70% for the last fifteen years (although this drops to around 55-60% if the question is phrased as “suicide” rather than “end the patient’s life.”) So for death with dignity campaigners, the public opinion battle is already won; they just need more legislatures on side.


Government votes not to improve MMP

by Rob Salmond

Last night, Parliament voted down a bill from Labour’s Iain Lees-Galloway that would have dropped the 5% MMP threshold to 4% and got rid of the coat-tailing rule.

These changes didn’t come of thin air, or out of Labour policy. They were the main recommendations of the Electoral Commission’s own independent, non-partisan review of MMP. There were multiple rounds of public consultations and expert testimony behind that review. It was a good piece of work, and former National MP Simon Power deserves a lot of credit for running it.

Then Simon Power left Parliament, Judith Collins took over, and the review died. That’s why we’re reduced in New Zealand to implementing an independent, non-partisan review of the electoral system via a private member’s bill. It’s shameful, really.

The changes themselves are entirely sensible. For the party vote threshold, the trend overseas is that more advanced democracies tend to have lower thresholds:

  • Only three PR countries have a higher threshold than New Zealand: Turkey, Russia, and Liechtenstein (which in that country means approximately 1,000 people!).
  • Most of the countries that share New Zealand’s 5% threshold are former communist countries, plus Belgium and of course Germany – more on Germany in a moment.
  • The other northern European democracies all have lower thresholds than New Zealand, most have 4%, although the Dutch have no formal threshold at all.

Counter to this trend, one of the claims sometimes made about lowering the threshold is that it could lead to instability – citing Israel and Italy as examples. I addressed this in my submission to the MMP review:

2.3  There is not rigorous evidence to support the claim that a lower threshold is likely to lead to instability in New Zealand.

2.4  To look for such a relationship, I used data from the University of Berne on the number of changes in the makeup of a government that happen each year in the OECD, a good measure of government instability. I combined these data with Arend Lijphart’s data about the national-level legal thresholds and effective thresholds for party representation. The total number of countries under examination is 23 and the total number of country years is 826. The chart below shows that there is no obvious relationship between the threshold for party representation and instability in government, either in all years or in non-election years.

 2.5  Further analyses show there is not a statistically significant relationship between the threshold for party representation and the level of government instability, measured using annual changes in government composition. For the technically-minded: simple bivariate correlations between thresholds and instability in PR countries were only significant at 0.514, and this significance drops further to 0.952 if election years are discarded from the analysis to give an estimate of between-election instability. In non-technical terms: for every unstable low-threshold country like Israel, there is a stable low-threshold country like the Netherlands (where there were only thee between election changes in government composition over almost forty years).

For the lifeboat rule, everyone knows the arguments around fairness between parties. The commission agreed with those arguments, which is why is wanted to ditch the rule. But its also worth remembering where we got the rule from – Germany. In Germany, there remains a lifeboat rule, but you have to win three districts, not just one, to bypass the normal threshold. That has the benefit of protecting them against basically one-person parties bringing in their friends on the basis of single idiosyncratic district.

If government parties wanted to keep a lifeboat rule to legitimately protect regional-based parties, then I certainly would have been open to amending the rule to two or three seats rather than dumping it.

But National-and-current-friends didn’t want to have that debate. Not even a select committee consideration. Not even after an independent, non-partisan review.

The biggest shame here is that National started this process really well. Simon Power did a good job overseeing the MMP Review, and he’ll be quietly seething at what Judith Collins and others have done to his initiative.

What we’re again seeing in this example is the transformation of this government from an ambitious first-term government to a tawdry third-term administration that abuses the democratic process to further its own survival. New Zealand’s democracy deserves better.


Bridges swims in troubled waters

by Rob Salmond

I received new information from Simon Bridges this week, via the OIA. In my opinion, it proves he and Wayne Eagleson have been lying to New Zealand to cover up an abuse of power around the Northland by-election.

Bridge bribe

Remember the failed Northland bridge-bribe? That was a National party plan, not a government policy. The rules on those kinds of partisan initiatives are clear - politicians cannot use taxpayer-funded officials – at all – for this kind of project (Cabinet Manual, section 6.60).

Yet that is exactly what Simon Bridges did when he forced NZTA officials to drop everything and work on his bridge bribe. A series of emails, released to me via the OIA a while back, show the panicked and wide-ranging requests from Bridges’ office to the NZTA.

Then, predictably, the excuses began; each sillier than the last.

First, they claimed the rules said they were fine. Then someone showed them the rules, and they changed their mind.

Second, they invented a new rule. The only bad part would be “seeking policy advice,” and Bridges had apparently only “sought information.” It was a head-of-a-pin-samba to begin with, then someone showed them the emails from Bridges clearly asking for policy advice, and they changed their mind again.

The most recent excuse, from Wayne Eagleson, was that National was initially planning this whole caper as government policy, then after getting the work done changed its mind and did it as a partisan announcement instead.

The cinematic masterpiece Super Troopers sums up my reaction to that claim best:

I'll believe ya when me shit turns purple and smells like rainbow sherbet.

Minister: “I got nothing”

But I wanted to give National a shot at being right on this so I wrote to Bridges and asked him, under the OIA, for:

all documents held by your office that mention or detail whichever specific “government policy formation process” was used by Wayne Eagleson to justify the tasking emails about Northland that your office sent to NZTA …

This week, I got a response. The total number of documents Bridges could find to back up his story was … wait for it …

None. He couldn’t find even a single email obliquely mentioning a possible government bridge-widening programme in Northland. It was a ghost policy.

This is completely ridiculous. As I blogged at the time I made the request:

And, if they can’t find any documents, but they say that Bridges – in his own head – first intended the NZTA work to be for government policy formation, later changing his mind, then you might as well print the Cabinet Manual in two-ply. If the rule is “Ministers can use public officials for party work so long as the thought crossed their mind once for it to be government work,” then just delete the rule and be done with it.

That standard – obviously rortable as it is – is now what that National says protects the taxpayer from having to bankroll unlimited partisan research for the government of the day.

It is a sham and a disgrace. In other countries they’d call it corrupt.

The government needs to stop bullshitting everyone, admit Simon Bridges acted inappropriately, and stand him down for as punishment.

Continuing to insist on this obviously, provably fake version of events makes them look like a lying child caught elbow-deep in a cookie jar.

Turn about is fair play

I want to say one more thing here, too. National’s knee-jerk butt-covering sets a dangerous precedent, namely that a Minister’s fleeting thought is enough justification to get the public sector beavering away on ultimately partisan work.

That precedent allows other Ministers a way to rort the system even more than Bridges did. And, because National set the precedent, they’d have no credibility with then complain. If they want to have low standards that advantage the government of the day when they are in government, they’d better sit there and lump it like grown-ups when they’re in opposition.

 That’s not my preferred outcome. I’d rather both sides played by the actual rules. But I remember my game theory classes. If the other side is going to play dirty, then often it’s better to do the same right back than be a lily-white loser.


Unity, success: Chicken, egg?

by Rob Salmond

Phil Quin, one of the people linked to the new right-of-Labour group Progress, has had an article about unity published in the Herald. Here’s a flavour:

Disunity within caucus seriously undermined Labour's credibility," the [Labour election review] stated. This aligns neatly with a view, ubiquitous in media and political circles, that Labour is prone to destructive factional wrangling; and that MPs were so hopelessly divided under David Cunliffe that it doomed the party's chances. I think it's nonsense. […]

More broadly, the Unity Hypothesis posits that party unity breeds success and, without it, electoral oblivion awaits. This is backwards: it is political success that engenders unity, and the pursuit of unity at all costs is immensely damaging.

I think Phil’s misguided on both counts, mainly because he’s arguing from supposition rather than evidence.

Last year I worked on Labour’s campaign in a relatively senior role, and as a result I had access to some of our internal research, including opinion polls and focus groups.

When people in focus groups reported having voted Labour in the past, but reported planning to vote National in 2014, they were often asked: “why have you changed your mind?” In response, issues of unity, backstabbing, in fighting, and so on came up immediately, spontaneously, and repeatedly. Sitting behind the one-way glass listening to that was no fun at all.

Of course, revealing this finding is no great secret, because National had this information from its own research, the 2014 election is now well and truly over, and the research accords with the dominant view among everyone except Phil.

Secret or not, this finding is crucial. Voters were reporting that they felt disunity was a good enough reason not to consider voting Labour in 2014. They weren’t prodded into saying so; it was just their genuine perception.

In politics, remember, perception is reality.

That means there was clear evidence from the focus groups – backed by the down-survey questions in Labour’s polling – that “disunity” really was a cause of vote loss for Labour in 2014. Whether that disunity was perceived or real is decidedly secondary. In fact, I agree with Phil there wasn’t much actual disunity in 2014. What matters is it caused vote-loss anyway.

This evidence seriously undercuts Phil’s claim that disunity had nothing to do with Labour’s 2014 performance. The voters say it did.

But what of his second point, that seeking unity as a path to success is bass-ackwards? Phil thinks instead that success is the path to unity.

Well, the voters get a say there, too. And the voters told our researchers over and over again that, from their perspective, a perceived lack of unity was a barrier between Labour and success.

Success and unity are in a chicken-egg relationship. They’re symbiotic. They’re endogenous. Success will breed further unity; I think Phil is right about that. But any disunity now makes that initial dose of success ever harder to achieve. I don’t need suppositions or arguments from personal experience to make that argument – I just asked the voters.

That brings me to a broader point about Progress. Last week I welcomed Progress on to the scene, on the basis that another voice promoting positions left of the current government is a good thing. I took comfort in Stuart Nash’s view that Progress wasn’t a new faction within Labour.

I sure hope Phil – who likes the idea of factions within Labour – read Stuart’s comments carefully. His column suggests perhaps he should give Stuart a call.

If Progress ends up being merely a group that engages in internal Labour debates via newspaper columns, the only winners will be National. I remain hopeful it won’t go that way.

Rob Salmond blogs at polity.co.nz.