Speaker by Various Artists

101

The Government lost the election

by Joshua Drummond

The Government lost the election.

This isn't an angle you'll have seen much lately, or will in the coming days, with a news media full of talk about "moral authorities", and speculation about Winston's role as kingmaker, but it's the truth. The Government - National and Act, with support from United Future and the Maori Party (RIP, x2) - lost to the Opposition bloc, comprised of Labour, the Greens, and New Zealand First.

Assuming the special votes swing left, as they usually do, the loss will become even more comprehensive with the Greens and Labour between them likely to pick up a seat or two.

Of course, New Zealand First's Winston Peters has positioned his party as capable of governing with either National or Labour. But his party was part of the Opposition, and their policies (such as they are) have far more in common with Labour's than they do National's. Make no mistake: the National-led Government just straight-up lost the election, and they'll lose more if they end up in a coalition with New Zealand First, given the concessions Peters will extract.

But you'd never know it from the headlines, which have mostly positioned National as the "winner" of the election, barring the minor technicality of Peters's negotiations. The biggest loser in this election was MMP, and it's all the media's fault.

With a couple of percentage points bled from National, and the loss of the Maori party,  it was obvious from fairly early on election night that the next Government would be decided by the Kingmaker in the North (who also lost his electorate seat, but no matter.)

With this conclusion ironclad before 10pm, this left the various news anchors with hours to fill what would otherwise be dead air with vacuous bullshit, and boy did they rise to the occasion. Duncan Garner was magnificent, full of interrupting, bumptious blather about the largest-polling party's "moral right" to form the government, which is codified nowhere in law nor in unwritten convention, and goes contrary to the most basic, obvious electoral fact that, under MMP, the parties – not the party –who receive the most votes get to form the government.

It's basic numbers: whoever (collectively) has the most votes, wins. We've had MMP for twenty years now. This stuff is not that hard. I like to think that the people who weave media narratives are very far from stupid, so the only explanation is that this incorrigible ignorance is wilful. Why? My hunch is that they're simply not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

MMP is far more ungood, from a narrative perspective, than the old First Past the Post system. In many ways, there is less conflict - conflict being the pernicious, fallacious premise that the news media is built on - and there's no clear-cut winner-take all. Proportional representation requires compromise. It's built into the system; it's the art of the possible, writ large.

Under MMP, no one party has ever taken an absolute majority. This is why National, which views itself as the natural party of Government in New Zealand, has tried so hard to destroy it. This time around Labour gave an MMP campaign a shot, with the poorly-understood Memorandum of Understanding with the Green Party.

The execution was fairly bad, especially after Labour's relative popularity under Jacinda Ardern nearly cooked the Greens. But it was still pretty much MMP campaigning. Two different parties, two different agendas, yet from the outset they said they'd do their best to form a government, given the opportunity.

Meanwhile, National did its best to throw the minor parties under their campaign bus and position the election as a drag race, albeit one dogged by their faithful hound, crumbs-under-the-table whippet-boy David Seymour – who now has his tail between his legs after being informed he'll no longer be needed or wanted under a coalition with NZ First.

National's fondest wish, after their failed referendum against MMP, has long been the disappearance of New Zealand First, followed closely by getting Greens down to 4.9%. This would leave National (also fairly conveniently rid of the Maori Party) at last devoid of any meaningful coalition commitments and in a position to govern alone.

They didn't get there, but the news media did everything it could to help them out. They systematically denied minor party leaders any real share of the spotlight. Leaders' debates were positioned as duels, trials by combat, when this bears no resemblance to the actual jockeying, compromise and concession demanded by the logistics of MMP.

It would be a far greater reflection of reality to have the minor party leaders present during all debates. (Which, as they're currently run, also bear no resemblance to actual debates, as anyone who did time on a debating team knows. I'll give an honourable exception to The Spinoff's debate, which as a long-running argument between various party members, both major and minor, was by far the best reflection of MMP reality).

There is, of course, a persistent misunderstanding in the electorate that the party with the most votes gets first go at forming a Government. This seems to be the unspoken justification from the Duncan Garners and Mike Hoskings of the world; that they're only reflecting Middle New Zealand's understanding back at them. To which I say, oh, fuck off.

If the electorate still doesn't understand MMP, it's because you haven't done your goddamn job: explaining it properly. In fact, the New Zealand news media and punditry has largely done the opposite; by continually deriding the role of minor parties and ignoring the inconveniently non-horse-racey nature of MMP, they've done all they can to encourage the misconceptions.

Constant snide asides aimed at minor contenders, like Gareth Morgan and his 2 plus-percent-polling TOP party ( ignoring briefly all that Gareth did to encourage the jibes,) didn't help. Sure, the remaining FPP-hangover quirks of MMP – the god-awful coat-tail rule, the undemocratic 5 percent threshold – play their part in muddying the electoral water for the public. But if the class doesn't understand the teacher, it's the teacher that did a shitty job. That's what's happened here. The Government lost the election, and somehow, no-one seems to realise it.

We should expect better next election. It's well past time that the news media's good story got out of the way of the inconvenient, messy truth of MMP.

23

Polling 2017: life beyond landlines?

by Gavin White

There’s no doubt that the decline in landline usage is creating big challenges for the pollsters in New Zealand's general election and they’re dealing with it in different ways.

Unfortunately for the New Zealand public, we seem to be down to two main public polls this time (plus the occasional Roy Morgan), and it’s clear that the Newshub Reid and One News Colmar Brunton are providing wildly different results.

Let’s remember that Colmar Brunton and Reid Research are two of the longest-running political polls in NZ (UMR being the longest) and both have good records at elections.

People have been putting the unusually big differences between those two polls down to a volatile electorate, but I think there’s more to it than that.

For a start, Colmar Brunton’s poll is still conducted entirely by landline, while Reid’s is using a hybrid telephone-online approach.  Although Colmar Brunton has stuck with landlines this time around, I’m certain that they’ll be using a mix of quotas and weights to ensure that the sample is as representative of the wider population as possible – and there’s a lot more to designing a good poll than just who you talk to.

Newshub haven’t reported this on every occasion (and they definitely should), but here’s what the report on Reid’s July poll said on the methodology:

The Newshub-Reid Research poll was conducted July 20-28.  1000 people were surveyed, 750 by telephone and 250 by internet panel.  It has a margin of error of 3.1 percent.

When I developed my poll of polls for the 2014 election, I used the differences between the election result and each company’s final poll.  I’m hesitant to do that for Reid this time because, to me, they’re using a fundamentally different methodology.  It’s not necessarily a bad methodology, it’s just a different one, and I don’t feel like I can use their average "error" from previous elections to take a view on how accurate they’re likely to be this time.

As I say, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with their hybrid methodology, but I do feel that we need to know more about it before we can judge their results.

A little diversion for a moment.  In Australia, CATI (telephone) polls are very nearly dead, with online polls and robopolls taking over.  All the main political polls are now conducted online, and they performed very well at the 2016 federal election.

I think it’s inevitable that New Zealand political polls will eventually go the same way, but there are significant challenges to that.  The standard objection to landline-based polls is that not everyone has a landline any more – but the same applies to online polls.

Online surveys depend on online panels, and even when everyone has access to the internet, not everyone will be on an online survey panel. That seems to work okay in Australia, where there are major panel providers holding huge databases of people, but in New Zealand the panels don’t seem to be as big or representative.

The other thing to remember is that in a telephone survey, the participant hears the question, whereas in an online survey they see it.  That might not seem to matter, but in political polling it seems to be a big deal. In a telephone poll, a respondent will typically be asked "what party would you vote for if any election were today?" and have to answer off the top of their head, but in an online survey they have to be presented with a list of parties.

You’d think that because we actually vote on paper the online approach would be closer to the real experience, but for whatever reason phone polls have seemed to provide more credible results.  That could be down to the MMP system, where the major parties (which tend to be at the top of people’s minds) tend to have electorate candidates, and therefore appear nearer the top of the voting paper.

Because of the differences between the two formats, I’m generally reluctant to combine the two.  There are situations, however, where a top-up sample using a different methodology can be useful.  In a recent project in Australia, for example, I conducted the main survey online and then had a top-up CATI survey to reach those who were uncomfortable with doing things online (and were therefore unlikely to be on an online survey panel). 

Crucially, however, I didn’t feel that I could combine the results of the two surveys together, because I didn’t know enough about the "not comfortable with doing things online" population (i.e. their census statistics) to work out what weights to use for each survey.  I presented the results separately, and let people draw their own comparisons between the two.

Similarly, if I was designing a hybrid approach for a New Zealand political poll and I was going to stick with a phone poll as the main one, I’d use the online survey to target those who don’t have landlines. It’d be easier to weight the two results together than the Australian example I mentioned above, because there is census data on landline use, but even then I think there’d be significant challenges to getting a representative sample from the combined sample.

I’d like to know more about whether Reid have used an approach like that, and whether they are seeing any differences between their phone and online samples.  Certainly, I think the reporting needs to acknowledge that it is a new methodology, and that phone and online surveys are different.

Oh, and I’d like Newshub to stop reporting their poll results to one decimal place.  It’s a ridiculous thing to do – in a survey of n=1000 people, 0.1% is one person.  Polls have margins of error far greater than that, so they’re claiming accuracy they simply don’t have.

Note: Gavin White has previously worked for UMR New Zealand, but now lives in Australia, where he does some work for UMR Australia, a separate company. He  no longer sees UMR NZ's polling data and the views he expresses here are his and not those of UMR NZ.

110

Low-quality language on immigration

by Jogai Bhatt

Orcon IRL’s election special took place Sunday evening, and it was a right time. Kiri Allan mesmerised crowds in te reo. Stephen Berry knocked Rock Enrol. Chloe Swarbrick spoke of a Green future. And I disrespected Russell’s authority and went over my allocated panel time.

But the most poignant discussion took place around an hour into the event, in a panel moderated by 95bFM’s Ximena Smith. This is where Geoff Simmons (TOP), Louisa Wall (Labour), and Tracey Martin (New Zealand First) entered a candid conversation about immigration – and what began as nuanced words on economic migrants and refugee quotas, quickly spiralled into a careless strike on “low quality immigrants”.

The term, employed by Louisa and Geoff, was in reference to unskilled migrants, with the former speaking specifically to student immigration. The core of their arguments had merit, and I’m sure we could discuss it for hours. But that’s a conversation for another time, because what struck a nerve with me during this panel was the nature of the language employed. From Tracey’s "turning down the tap" to Louisa’s concern around unskilled immigrants "flooding" the country, the majority of this conversation felt regressive and disappointing. 

The politicians all agreed immigration was crucial to a thriving Aotearoa. They also echoed similar sentiments in filtering the kinds of immigrants crossing NZ borders.

But ... let's start with Louisa:

“We need immigration but it has to be quality, and the students who come here, I believe, should be at a minimum tertiary education.”

Louisa is also the MP for Manurewa; an area populated by many first-generation Pasifika peoples who were not traditionally tertiary-educated. It’s understandable here that Labour would want to prioritise those highly skilled students in terms of Aotearoa’s student visa intake. Capping off on lower-skilled immigrants would just be an unfortunate consequence. But saying we’re currently "flooded" with low-skilled immigrants is wrong. It’s not just threatening to those incoming – it’s a slap in the face to those already living here too. For Louisa, that’s a large portion of her electorate.

As for Geoff, TOP’s deputy leader highlighted a very straight-cut, technocratic, and economically-minded view on low-skilled immigrants.

“We want to make sure it’s a win-win [situation] ... there are clearly issues with lower-skilled migration coming into this country.”

Geoff’s such a bloody savvy public speaker that I had to check TOP’s website to make sure I heard everything correctly. A subsection titled ‘smarter immigration’ found this. 

 

If standard of living is defined by wealth and material comfort, then this basically translates to: “you are welcome to this country, but only if you benefit Aotearoa economically”. This philosophy employs immigrants as pawns for the sole purpose of economic growth. Funnily enough, in attempting to address this mindset, the best quote that comes to mind is from the NZ First MP on the panel:

“Immigration is about people, it’s not about numbers. These are human beings we’re talking about.”

Tracey captured the facet of immigration so many forget – including Louisa and Geoff. These are human beings we’re talking about, and resorting to numbers, labels, and wounding language to communicate your message isn’t the way. This kind of language only perpetuates the vilification of an already targeted group. It normalises hatred – and it desperately requires a rethink.

Jogai Bhatt is the host of The Thursday Wire, 12pm-1pm on 95bFM. She was a guest host for Orcon IRL: The Election One at The Golden Dawn last Sunday.

8

Seeking out the Spomeniks

by Clinton Logan

Dotted about the former Yugoslavia are Spomeniks – largely forgotten monuments, often erected in silent, empty landscapes, like sentinels from another world. Even their collective label sounds alien. (It's Serbo-Croatian for "monuments." )

"They're truly hideous," wrote one design critic. But for me, they're the antithesis of ugly and were worth riding thousands of kilometres to see.

During the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of Spomeniks started appearing across the newly-formed country. These giant modernist/brutalist structures were intended to simultaneously commemorate the tragedies of war and celebrate the utopian promise offered by the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Glorification through sculpture is nothing new – but in contrast to the ubiquitous marble statues favoured in the West, the East adopted a much bolder and more oblique aesthetic. Concrete and rebar was their material of choice. The individual designs ranged from massive conceptual sculptures to multi-storey buildings and some that look more like the notepad doodles of a distracted student. I don't mean that as a criticism – their creativity and scale are absolutely breathtaking in real life.

They were initially revered by the peple, but the relevance of these once-noble emblems faded after the disintegration of the Yugoslavian republic in 1991. Like incomprehensible relics from an alien civilization, most lie in a state of neglect. Like the region's former communist unification principles, the general public don't seem to care about them anymore.

As a fan of brutalism, I'll admit I came for the concrete. The history lesson was secondary. But slowlying approach these wonders from a distance changed all of that.

Their challenging accessibility applies a natural filter for visitors. Whether to site is at the terminus of a winding mountain road or in an obscure rural field, the discovery experience is always the same. Just you and the giant Spomenik, facing off in isolation from the rest of the world. These installations project an aura and gravity that's impossible to ignore. They force you to pay attention. They insist you question their reason for being.

Their existence typically pinpoints a location of unspeakable cruelty. Each is associated with a human tragedy that's sickening to read about. Stories that stick with you long after the awe of the concrete has faded.

But even in their sadly neglected state, these structures offer a positive illustration of how we humans are still capable of sublime expression even in the wake of such behavioural darkness. And whether they're bronze or concrete, classical or brutalist, it's the whole point of creating them, right?

Clinton Logan explores the world by motorcycle and documents his travels on his personal Facebook account.

23

How StuffMe looked from the regions

by Andrew Frame

Just after the Commerce Commission announced its rejection of Fairfax and NZME’s “#StuffMe” merger bid yesterday, Sinead Boucher, Executive Editor for Fairfax Media, tweeted her reaction. The decision was, she said, “Very disappointing for NZ journalism”.

I scoffed, because to my mind the merger going ahead threatened something very important in New Zealand journalism and media – a wide range of information and opinion from a wide range of people and places.

In the months between ComCom’s initial and final decisions New Zealand media operations had been under the spotlight. TVNZ was planning to cut costs with a “regional-focused” restructuring plan, while on Stuff they focused on how Facebook (one of the biggest threats to NZ media according to #StuffMe supporters) was affecting people’s lives and changing the media landscape.

Stuff also featured an opinion piece by former Mediaworks news chief and now Newsroom website co-founder Mark Jennings on the TVNZ restructure that got far less attention than it deserved. Because at its heart was the problem that has caused NZ media to slide down the slippery slope to this point where the newspaper companies saw merger as the only option.

Jennings was right on some points. As a "cost cutting" move this saves very little. TVNZ just spent $60 million refurbishing its Auckland headquarters, and at the quoted wage of $60,000 the network could afford to hire 16 or 17 new regional TVNZ staff for the price of their one CEO’s $1 million salary.

If TVNZ was truly serious about covering the regions it would invest far more than just one multitasking “video journalist”. It would build a studio, hire local camera, sound, editing and reporting staff – that would be a commitment to the regions.

But Jennings got one thing very wrong in his opinion piece and it drives a chronic problem in New Zealand’s broadcast media. One that has seen  viewership and advertising revenue fall and the audience rely less and less on traditional New Zealand media. Jennings doesn’t believe TVNZ having reporters in regional centres is a good idea because:

Viewers in Invercargill don’t give a toss about Whanganui’s sewage problems.

There are simply not enough stories of national significance in Nelson or Queenstown or Tauranga to justify a full-time TV reporter in those areas.

In other words: New Zealand’s regions don’t matter.

Apparently nothing newsworthy (other than the odd murder or natural disaster) exists outside of the main centres – especially Auckland, where New Zealand’s main broadcast media are based.

Auckland is indeed a big city. With around 1.4 million residents a fair bit of stuff, some of it newsworthy, happens there. But New Zealand’s population is nearing 4.5 million; less than one third of New Zealand lives in Auckland.

Yet what do we see plastered across our news websites every day and on national television news every night despite our location?

Auckland issues.

Over recent years, Auckland house prices, homelessness and traffic congestion have taken a lion’s share of national news media coverage. (Ironically, Aucklanders may not be home in time to watch 6pm news items on traffic congestion because they’re still stuck in it.)

Do those same Invercargill viewers Jennings refers to "give a toss" about those Auckland issues? Is something that might be relevant to a third of the country’s population "nationally significant" to the other two thirds?

No.

Using Jennings’ theory, reporting on what could be a serious public health problem for the people of Whanganui caused by corporate shortcutting for profit or council graft (problems not just limited to the main centres and deserving of airing nationally so those responsible can be held to account and the same problems don’t happen elsewhere) is shelved because "no one cares about that".

Yet everyone from Cape Reinga to Bluff needs to hear about a breakdown on the North-western Motorway causing a 15-minute commuter delay?

There’s something very wrong with that ideology and it’s not just limited to New Zealand television.

Non-commercial Radio New Zealand, by comparison, does cover the entire country. Stories from regional New Zealand are commonplace and it RNZ produces them on a far smaller (and rather criminally frozen) budget than its commercial radio compatriots. It also soundly beats those same commercial networks in their almighty ratings quest.

The only gripe I would have with RNZ is that while the likes of The Panel do at least feature opinions stretching the length and breadth of New Zealand, main centre media, PR, political and pollster voices are still a bit too commonplace and not necessarily representative of a true New Zealand voice or opinion.

Aside from Radio New Zealand, the widest geographical coverage of New Zealand by network broadcasters comes from Māori Television and TVNZ’s Te Karere. Both cover Māori issues in places like Northland, East Cape, King Country, Whanganui. Māori media, at least, readily present stories of “national news significance” outside of Auckland and other main centres.

Of all broadcast media, radio has always been the most “personal”. It’s just you and your radio. Indeed, one of the first things they teach in announcer training is that you aren’t talking to hundreds or thousands of people, but to just one person listening at home, or in their car.

It used to be each regional centre had its own radio station, or two. Broadcasting was  “live and local, 24 hours a day” (I know – I did the midnight to dawn part of the 24 hours). If there was a fire in Hastings, you heard about it straight away. A crash blocked a road in Napier? They gave you detour directions as it was cleared. Some minor local celebrities were created, but it also kept you close. You often met announcers in the street.

In the 90s, profits started to take over. Individual stations were bought up, joined into networks nationally simulcast from Auckland and local content was stripped back and in many cases away completely lost.

Call your “local” station today to ask about a fire in Havelock and you will be asked “Is that Havelock near Nelson, or Havelock North in Hawke’s Bay?” There’s no longer that closeness or community, because in New Zealand media “the regions don’t matter.”

Last time I checked the reach of one of NZ’s major radio networks, it had 25 frequencies/“stations” across the country. Each broadcast five to seven different shows per day with one to two announcers hosting each show. Seventeen of those stations had a sole local announcer, usually on a breakfast show, and three stations had two local announcers – again breakfast duos. Four stations had no local announcers at all – their “local” announcer was simulcast from a neighbouring region.

In total, the network had 31 “local” announcers, given that the eight announcers who were simulcast throughout the country from the network’s main studio in Auckland were technically “local” in Auckland. This means around 158 announcing positions across the country – once covered by local broadcasters, covering local issues – are now covered by the same 8 people in Auckland.

That hardly seems fair on local listeners, local broadcasters or local issues.

But it’s no longer good enough for these Auckland-based networks to try and dominate one media platform – they must dominate all platforms across the country! We now have the same “media talent” (rather than common, decent journalists) on simulcast breakfast radio, with regular opinion columns in newspapers and websites owned by the same networks, as well as being the headline act nightly television news and current affairs shows!

As the reach of New Zealand media has expanded the range of content, opinion and input has drastically narrowed. #StuffMe would have only exacerbated that.

And it’s not just news shows.

No matter how dire, repetitive, convoluted, or just plain rubbish New Zealand’s “reality television” offerings are, the networks that screen them will still promote them and sing their praises through their print, radio and online arms.

“Hey, did you see ‘Show Z’ last night, wasn’t it great!?” they will broadcast, tweet and opine.

“Oh, look! Who just happens to be walking on to the set of “My Kitchen Garden Rebuild is New Zealand’s Top Singer” – it’s Dave and Jane from ‘Bland FM’ with the contestants’ latest challenge!”

Need a host for your new show? Why have auditions for someone new, when you can just shimmy a current staff member over from another of your network’s brands?

New Zealand’s media “talent pool” has become a puddle and it’s evaporating fast.

Can’t someone else have a turn, please?

Yes they can!

This is where the wonder of social media comes in and why our current “traditional” media networks seem so scared and threatened by it. Because the likes of Facebook are doing the job TVNZ used to do with shows like Top Half, Town and Around and Today Tonight.

The BBC, by comparison, still has regional news shows following national broadcasts and has done so for years. TVNZ and other media chould still be doing this today if things weren’t so Auckland-centric and fiscally focused.

New Zealand’s network media gave up on two thirds of New Zealand years ago. When they did, they cut out two thirds of their potential viewership and advertising revenue, because guess what? People like seeing their home town, issues relevant to them and familiar brands on the television, reading about them in the newspaper and hearing about it on the radio.

So it’s only fair that if the majority of media coverage in New Zealand ignores them, the majority of New Zealanders switched off their televisions and radios and turned to Twitter and Facebook on their computers, Ipads and smartphones for issues relevant to them.

Social media does what it says on the packet – it's social. It has a worldwide broadcast range, but it can also have the most personal of touches and community spirit. It works superbly. Ask online about that fire in Havelock and you will be told precisely where it is, when it started, how big it is and likely get pictures and video live from the scene.

People disenchanted with a lack of local coverage will create their own groups covering the news and issues important to them in their cities and regions. If traditional broadcast media’s income, reach and influence are hurt by that, then they have only themselves to blame.

Because regional New Zealand does matter. Two thirds of the country is too big to ignore. New Zealand viewers, listeners and media consumers – regional and metropolitan alike deserve better.

But what would I know – I’m from Hawke’s Bay!

Andrew Frame lives and blogs in Napier.