Speaker by Various Artists


The problem is Serco

by John Palethorpe

They were, until a few months ago, the biggest company you’d never heard of. Well, that’s not entirely true. In New Zealand, Serco are not a big company. They have two public sector contracts, just two. Unfortunately, you already know about those two contracts. Because they’re in New Zealand’s prisons.

It would be nice to say that this was a unique set of circumstances, that the fact that Mt Eden Corrections Facility is a remand prison meant that there were always going to be problems. I say that because that is exactly what the Minister for Corrections said when he was challenged on the rates of violence at Mt Eden on TV3’s The Nation. That was in May, before the Fight Club allegations had surfaced.

It would also be nice to dismiss Serco overcharging the UK Government by NZD $164,776,181 for tagging ex-offenders who had either returned to prison, left the country or were dead. As well as their chronic mismanagement of Fiona Stanley Hospital in Australia. Not to mention forgetting that Serco only managed to make a profit in 2014 from the lucrative nature of their contracts with the Australian Government and their deeply awful refugee policy. Actually, no, it wouldn’t.

The Department of Corrections is currently investigating the fight clubs, arrests of prisoners for managing a meth ring, the guards offering ‘sparring tips’, and much more. What was supposed to take a month is now going to take four, with Phase 1 reporting October 30th and Phase 2 on November 30th. If you’re seeking the way to minimise the impact of what is clearly a catastrophic systemic failure, punting that far down the line and breaking up the report is definitely one way of doing it.

But basically, it’s just not thorough enough. Prison officers don’t have faith in Corrections to conduct their investigation with integrity. Ex-inmates fear speaking out, in case of retribution if they end up back inside. And while Serco have mismanaged Mt Eden, surely some questions need to be put to Corrections and the Minister for Corrections about exactly why they needed leaked videos on YouTube to let them know one of their prisons was failing?

And boy have they failed. They failed in the UK, they failed in Australia and they’ve failed here. But the investigation isn’t focusing on the systemic problems caused by a company who slash staff numbers to make a profit. It’s not recognising the tragic history of Serco involvement in overseas public services. The problem isn’t fight clubs, it’s not prisoners. It’s Serco.

What’s needed is an independent inquiry. Labour’s Kelvin Davis has called for one as this whole mess unfolded. David Clendon of NZ Greens has also called for their contract to be cancelled. The idea of an independent investigation is supported by the Howard League For Penal Reform, the Corrections Association of New Zealand and the PSA. Because unlike many, many other countries New Zealand lacks a truly independent inspectorate of prisons. Say No To Serco Aotearoa is joining the politicians and the unions in calling for an independent inquiry.

Despite all the failures, Serco will continue to make money from Mt Eden. Because their contract ensures they will. The fines that Sam Lotu-Iiga has talked about aren’t fines, they’re just not paying them their performance bonuses. Bonuses which make up 10% of the contract. The other 90% is, contractually, untouchable.

There’s obviously more to do here. In New Zealand Serco are not a big company. Sure, they have a $300,000,000 contract for Mt Eden. Yes, they’re expecting $30,000,000 a year in profit from South Auckland Wiri prison. But that’s just two contracts. With social impact bonds and social housing up for privatisation in the future, you can bet Serco will express an interest.

Why? Because that’s what they do. Serco don’t stop just because they’ve been a catastrophic failure in one part of the public sector. They’re dedicated, it seems, to making a profit while failing to deliver lots of different public services. Right now, we’re in a good position to ensure that Serco don’t make a first class profit, while New Zealand gets second class services.

So, while we’re asking for an independent inquiry into the Mt Eden fiasco, we’re also demanding a moratorium on Serco being considered for any further public sector contracts. It makes sense. Why would you give them a second chance in New Zealand, when the number of chances and failures globally far exceed that number?


With help from the wonderful ActionStation, we’ve started a petition calling for an independent inquiry and a moratorium on Serco bids for New Zealand’s public services. You can sign up, here. Our campaign is in its early stages, and your support is vital You can find us on Facebook here, or track the hashtag #NoToSerco on twitter.


John Palethorpe

No To Serco Aotearoa


Meet the middle

by Rob Salmond

Last week I did a post about Jeremy Corbyn, and the possible worldwide implications of his rise. There’s been plenty of reaction. At the risk of prolonging a PFJ / JPF situation, I’d like to pick up on some points people have made.


Around a third of New Zealand’s population are leftists. Same for right-wingers. But you need 50% of the vote to govern. Guess where the rest comes from? The middle.

There’s certainly a legitimate debate about how best to approach winning over the political centre. But any suggestions that elections can be won without doing well in the centre aren’t grounded in reality.

Rule 1 in politics is “learn to count.” 33 < 50.

Some think this idea – of appealing to the middle – is somehow new or untested. Stephanie Rodgers, for example, talks about it being Labour’s plan “since 2008.”

Starting narrowly, anyone who looks at Labour’s successful 2005 platform and sees anything other than an appeal to the centre is dreaming.

More broadly, this theory – the median voter theorem – has been one of the most dominant global ideas in political science and politics since at least 1948. While it applies at the party-level most directly in FPP electoral systems, its logic applies just as well at the coalition level in most PR environments, too.

There’s actually plenty of revisionism in this debate, I’m sure myself included. Some PA commenters were sure John Smith won UK Labour the 1997 election despite dying in 1994. And Mike Smith is certain NZ Labour’s supposedly sharp tack left won it the 1999 election, rather than, say, comically self-destructive opponents.


Chris Trotter made two points in his posts on this debate: first that centrists believe in nothing; and second that centrists are Nazis. Yes, seriously. I’m surprised at Chris. Everyone knows you can’t be a nihilist and a Nazi at the same time.

Chris is welcome to his self-parodies about Orwell and Hitler. It sure it a long way from his earlier suggestion that Labour chase “Waitakere Man”. It’s almost like 2015 Chris is calling 2010 Chris a sympathizer…

His one argument worthy of response was that centrists lack any political beliefs. Others made similar arguments, too. They’re wrong.

Chris and others suggests centrists aren’t actually in the middle, they just say they’re in the middle because of their confused psychology. But rule 2 in politics is “perception is reality.” That includes the perceptions of people you might not agree with. If they think they’re in the middle, then they are.

While centrists often do not have strongly held ideological views, they do have beliefs and values. They don’t wake up each morning waiting for ideologues to fill their empty heads with things to think. Centrists aren’t goldfish.


Percent agreeing…





Import controls?




More $ for health?








Dole = bludger?




The Table gives some responses from the 2011 NZES, by ideological group. It suggests:

-  Centrists think more like lefties on economic protections and public investment

-  But they think more like right-wingers on new taxes and welfare

That’s helpful to know. You’re more likely to win centrists’ votes if you emphasize the issues where you agree with them, and downplay the issues where you don’t.

It’s the old story of flies, honey, and vinegar.

“Being relevant,” however, doesn’t prevent “standing for something.” None of this is necessarily about changing policy. Labour needs proper social democratic policy in order to stay Labour. Instead it’s about – for want of a better word – “narrative.” And issue emphasis.

From the 2011 data above, if Labour had convinced the population that the most important problem facing New Zealand was lack of public investment, the left could have won. If the right convinces the public that the most important issue is avoiding new taxes, they do very well.


Danyl McLaughlin helpfully mused:

I think [Labour would] look for something new. And I don’t think it would be movement along the values spectrum. It would look, probably, like the data-driven grass-roots campaigning of Obama.

Good news! Data-driven, grass roots campaigning is exactly what Labour – and everybody else – is pursuing right now.

We’re learning more about every voter before we make contact, and talking with more voters ever before. Labour has made good progress in parts of this work, as I discuss elsewhere. In some areas, we lag behind National. In others, we’re in front.

But, as 2014 shows, you can have all the whizz-bang data and volunteers with phones you like – if people don’t like what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter.

Make your message relevant to those voters who’ll decide the outcome, and you’re a chance. Don’t, and you’re toast.


In defence of the centre

by Rob Salmond

The leadership election in UK Labour has crystalised into everyone else vs Jeremy Corbyn’s fearless jump to the left. This has led some commentators to ask whether the old political orthodoxy of “move to the middle” is, long term, a death-knell for left-leaning parties. Here’s George Monbiot in the Guardian:

Across three decades New Labour strategists have overlooked a crucial reality: politicians reinforce the values they espouse. The harder you try to win by adopting your opponents’ values, the more you legitimise and promote them, making your task – and that of your successors – more difficult.

Monbiot says Tony Blair’s three election victories, won with a strategy of pursuing the centre, were actually harbingers of a long period in the wilderness, as the Blair-era hardened centre-right attitudes across the UK. There is at least a little recent academic research supporting this conclusion, too:

Voter surveys from Germany, Sweden, and Britain show us that although uncommitted centrists initially respond favorably to Social Democratic moderation, these voters don’t stay with centrist Social Democratic parties for long and the moves to the middle also increase abstentions and defections from formerly core Social Democratic voters.

This idea is taking hold most strongly in UK Labour, with Corybn’s impending landslide, but it also has some following in the US, with hard left alternative Benrie Sanders of Vermont packing stadiums to provide a further left alternative to Hilary Clinton.

However, I’ve got three problems with this thesis. (For the record, these are my personal views only, not Labour’s views.)

First, they don’t consider the alternative. How have centre-left parties gone when they’ve tacked away from the centre? It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it goes badly.

Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock lead the UK Labour party through seventeen years of Tory rule. It was bleak. Why did they keep losing for so long? Because under Foot the hard left got to run Labour’s policy, alienating Labour from the middle ground. And under Kinnock the hard left continued to battle prominently for policy influence, allowing Labours’ opponents to scaremonger successfully about what a vote for Labour really means.

How did UK Labour break out of this funk? Tony Blair.

And if you think that lesson, of declining centre-left fortunes when its narrative swings left, doesn’t apply for in modern New Zealand, here are two phrases you may find familiar: “Man ban.” “Sorry for being a man.”

Second, peoples’ votes are more malleable than their values. Monbiot says:

The task is to rebuild the party’s values, reclaim the democratic debate, pull the centre back towards the left and change – as Clement Attlee and Thatcher did in different ways – the soul of the nation.

The part where Monbiot is right is that the centre ground really is where elections are won and lost. (That statement is more controversial in New Zealand than it should be.) There are a ton of people there, and those peoples’ own identities are of being open to voting left or right. Below is a chart showing how New Zealanders perceive themselves, Labour, and National. Over a third see themselves as right of where they see Labour, and left of where they see National. That’s huge.

But “pulling the centre back towards the left” is massively, massively hard. You win those people over by being relevant to them as they are, not by telling them they’re worldview needs a rethink. It is just basic psychology. Tell people they were right all along; they like you. Tell people they were wrong all along; they don’t.

And if you win a majority of centrists, you win. The New Zealand Election Study series records six MMP elections in New Zealand – the three where Labour did best among centrists were the three Labour won.

That’s another message from the adacemic study I quoted above – in Germany, Sweden, and the UK, the elections where the left did best among centrists were the elections where they took power. As their popularity among centrists declined, so did their seat share.

Third, Monbiot conflates policy with competence:

Labour’s inability to provide a loud and proud alternative to Conservative policies explains why so much of its base switched to Ukip at the last election. Corbyn’s political clarity explains why the same people are flocking back to him.

Clarity is always a good quality in a politician. Saying what they’re for, and saying why they’re for it in simple, accessible language, are cornerstones of good political communication. But you can have clarity, and be competent, no matter where you stand on the ideological spectrum. “Clear” does not mean “extreme.”

Here are some of the best, clearest centre-left communicators in modern political history. Clinton and Obama in the US, Lange in New Zealand, Hawke and Keating in Australia, Blair in the UK. Clear communicators, all. Politically competent, all. Hard left? None.


New Zealand and the TPP: “Or you’ll do what?”

by Rob Salmond

When I started working with Matt McCarten, he told me the most important question in any negotiation, on any topic, is: “or you’ll do what?” It’s the answer to that question that determines if you’ve got any leverage; it determines if you’ll ever get what you want.

Having the right answer to “or you’ll do what?” is how McCarten’s Johnny-come-lately Unite union achieved the seemingly impossible, such as getting strip clubs and brothels to let their staff join a union. From A history of the Unite Union:

… a strip club and brothel owner sacked six staff who asked for Unite’s help. We shut down his three premises with a picket and a video camera to take footage of any customers going in – needless to say, none did.

That, in an odd but oddly satisfying segue, brings me to the TPP.

New Zealand’s position on trade, where we unilaterally take down almost all our own tariffs then act completely surprised when nobody listens to our pleas later, has been likened to showing up naked to a strip poker game. Before the game begins, you’ve already lost.

The big problem for Tim Groser right now is that je has no credible answer to “or you’ll do what?” Here’s part of a TPP play I’m writing as of just now:


I demand more dairy access for New Zealand to Canada, Japan, and the US!

Canada / US / Japan

Or you’ll do what?


I’m not finished! As a result, I also demand more dairy access for the US to Canada, and as a result I also demand more beef access for Canada to the US, and as a result I also demand…”

Canada / US / Japan

Or you’ll do what?


Or, or, or I’ll bring the whole TPP down around me in a fit of self-important pique!

Canada / US / Japan





Even with your galactic levels of self-important pique, you can’t pull that off.


You, Tim, need this deal more than it needs you. Here are your choices: cave quietly, or show yourself out.

[Groser caves quietly]

That’s what is going to happen. Groser’s going to cave on our behalf, and New Zealand’s going to suffer as a result. His supremely arrogant idea that New Zealand can defy the will of Canada, Japan, and the US on this is about as laughable as his pathetic bid to become top dog at the WTO.

And, thanks to Groser’s “emotional space” at the moment, we’re going to end up saddled with a bad TPP deal anyway.

We’ll give way on healthcare costs. We’ll give way on our right to legislate in our own public interest. We’ll give way on our ability to restrict foreign land ownership. And, in return, we won’t get any new meaningful dairy access. Heckuva job, Timmy.

Anything else we do get will be scraps, falling off the plates of countries blessed with proper negotiators.

All that is because Tim Groser spent the last 20 years getting naked before stepping out to play strip poker, and had nothing credible to say when the global A team said “or you’ll do what?”


Saying what we actually mean on inequality, the economy, and everything else

by Kirk Serpes

In my last post I talked a lot about the problem with problem-focused messaging and the power of metaphors and frames in changing how people think about complex issues. But to change how others think about inequality we have to unpack how we think about it and what we actually want.

‘Inequality’ on its own doesn’t actually mean anything. What bothers us is not a single metric getting worse – it’s the steady transformation in our idea of what society should be.  Inequality is one part of a wider ecosystem of concepts about society and our place in it, including the role of government and the function of the economy. And our language around it isn’t great.

The political right have a fairly consistent ecosystem of language to articulate their worldview on these concepts. They know what they want and can communicate it, and this is not by accident. It comes from the robust American research, where think tanks have been using focus groups, surveys and endless testing to perfect it since the 60’s. And since the 80’s that language has found its way into New Zealand’s political discourse.  

One key concept which currently gives the right its linguistic strength is how they frame the economy. Anat Shenker-Osorio, a leading communications researcher, analysed data from multiple sources on all sides of the political spectrum in the USA, to understand the underlying metaphors they use to talk about the economy.  She found there were around eight distinct metaphors, and what’s more, there was a noticeable difference between the ones used by progressives and conservative economists.

An argument you probably hear a lot from the right goes something like “You can’t do that, it will hurt the economy”. It may not sound like they’re using a metaphor but they are. You can only hurt living things.  The underlying metaphor is that of the body. Living beings have agency, and are better off free; so any interference by us to “restrain the economy” is seen as something that’s inherently unnatural and should be avoided.

By contrast, you might have heard how “Wall St bankers crashed the economy”. In that phrase is a metaphor of the economy as a vehicle in motion: an object created by humans to perform a certain function; to get people to where they want to go. Suddenly having government “in the driving seat” seems natural and obvious, as does “making sure nobody gets left behind.”

The most interesting part is that all this happens subconsciously.  If you want to read up on some of the other metaphors Shenker-Osorio mapped, have a read of the original document here.

There is pretty much no way to use neutral language when talking about the economy. It’s a very abstract concept, so we have to use more familiar physical concepts to both understand and communicate what’s going on. There’s almost always some kind of subtle underlying metaphor in every mention of the economy or markets. So the economy is “thriving” or “sick”, or “picking up speed” or “slowing down”, or – as you might have heard in the last week “Dairy is the backbone of our economy”, or we’re running into “head winds in the market.”  

The right wing frame of the economy is so common that it’s hard not to use it even when you disagree with the premise. Say, for example, you’re a progressive and you go on TV and say something like “This [climate/tax] policy won’t hurt the economy” – by even using the language of “hurt”, you’ve reinforced the right-wing framing of the economy as a free, independent, living thing that needs a hands-off approach.  Their frames contribute a long way to why their ideas have become the near unquestioned norms.  

It doesn’t have to be that way. If you say “This [climate/tax] policy will steer our economy in the right direction”, the audience starts to see the economy as something that has been created by humans for a particular purpose - to improve general well-being. The economy is guided by real people in positions of power who make real decisions that are moral choices, and our language needs to reflect that.

Only once we have a consistent frame for the economy can we bring in the frames for inequality itself, where we once again go to the work of Shenker-Osorio.  I’m not sure how she found enough conservatives who thought inequality existed in the USA, but the results are just an interesting as with the economy.   A very common metaphor is that of the horizontal gap. E.g: the gap is widening, and so on.

Talking about a ‘gap’ ignores causation – what or who created it? And what’s wrong with it?  And there’s nothing there that indicates to the fact that we live in a society that is interconnected and interdependent.

Also quite common is ‘the vertical gap’. E.g: “too many are at the bottom, and need a hand up”. Unfortunately all language naturally attributes moral superiority to being on top (upright vs lowdown), so it’s not a big leap to think that those on the bottom deserve their situation.  

A better metaphor - and one the NZ Greens have started using – is that of imbalance.   You don’t have to explain why it’s bad: being off balance is just not a great feeling. It also gets across the idea that we’re all part of the same interconnected system, and that inequality is bad for everyone, not just the poor.  With a little bit of effort we can connect ‘bad policy choices’ to ‘putting our society out of balance’, and put some agency back into the picture: we have the power to rebalance things.

There’s also inequality as a barrier, something that prevents you from getting where you want to go. This can be used well with the metaphor of the economy as a vehicle. “Inequality is holding back our economic power by keeping tens of thousands of kiwis from getting ahead.”

I personally found this metaphor quite a challenge to use elegantly.  But someone a LOT smarter than me made several historic speeches on inequality using this metaphor before anyone even imagined these studies.

“One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” - Rev. Martin Luther King

If you want more detail on this and other metaphors I highly recommend you read Shenker-Osorio’s paper on inequality here.

As for metaphors for the government itself: again we don’t have too much local research, but framing pioneer George Lakoff found that in the USA both sides of the political spectrum use the same metaphor – that of the family. Our family is the first form of governance we encounter, so we naturally attribute that metaphor to the government.  That’s why we hear terms like “Motherland” and “Father of our Nation” or, more locally “nanny state” and “Aunty Helen”.  If you don’t have the time to read any of Lakoff’s books, this hour-long YouTube video is pretty much what introduced me to the field of framing back in 2012 – essentially ideological differences boil down to differences in views on parenting.  

Of course the task of reframing our language doesn’t end there. We also have to re-examine public (and our own) perceptions of the poor and the rich. There’s very interesting research from the UK that indicates that even some of those in poverty don’t necessarily think of themselves as ‘poor.’ Which might be one explanation why the Labour Party has so much trouble reaching the ‘missing million’ last election.

The systemic drivers of poverty and inequality are everywhere, from education to housing, to health, to crime and policing, to regulation of pokies and sugar. Each of these issues can be framed in different ways using competing metaphors. It’s complicated, but it’s also powerful, and empowering. Because being able to communicate what you actually believe can even the playing field in public debate.  

There’s some pretty fresh local research to back this up by Peter Skilling at AUT. He ran several focus groups on inequality, to see what effect (if any) “open discussion between people with competing views” might have on people’s opinions. Or, more generally, to see what arguments were most powerful in the context of debate and discussion. What he found was that there was very little evidence of people changing their views on inequality through deliberation for a very interesting reason.

During the course of the focus groups, many people who said they supported greater equality found it difficult to argue in support of their egalitarian commitments when faced with opposing views.  More specifically, they found it hard to defend their original opinions once someone else argued that greater equality wasn’t possible, given “the realities of the marketplace.” Appeals to the norms of market competitiveness and of individual responsibility tended to be pretty effective in ending further debate.

Developing our own ecosystem of frames and metaphors across issues will mean that progressives will have the tools they need to challenge those norms, and actually have a fair debate about where we as a society should be going.  

Ultimately framing is a way for us to say what we mean and be true to our values, and not get caught up in saying things we don’t believe to try and “meet people halfway”.  And you know what, people appreciate and respect honesty.

If you do want to know more about framing on your particular issue or passion I have come across quite a few other studies from my wanderings but it would be quite impractical to list it all out here. So feel free to get in touch with me, or (shameless plug ahead), come along to Step it Up 2015 and chat to Anat Shenker-Osorio, one of the smartest researchers in the world in this space.  You’ll also get to meet and collaborate with some brilliant kiwis who are leading the progressive movement in New Zealand across pretty much every major issue.

 t: @kirkserpes

w: www.nzprogress.org.nz